I am not proud of how I have handled my kids’ relationship to technology over the years. I am often too strict — You are banned from the XBox for the next four months you ungrateful little sh*t. (not an exaggeration) — or too lenient: Oh, you want another three hours on the iPad? OK, Mommy is exhausted.
But I set those rules because they’re important. There’s a lot of research suggesting that the boundaries we set for our kids around tech are crucial to their well-being. Which is why I banned Snapchat for my kids until they turned 13, but then landed in an absolute shitshow with my 12 year old.
The data about kids and tech is pretty concerning. It tells us that kids who spend 3+ hours online a day are at higher risk for anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and poor body image. Devices can contribute to lower quality sleep for people of all ages, having a negative impact on mood and mental health. And then there are the troubling interactions of kids online: cruel comments in group texts, bullying via disappearing Snapchat messages, the relentless pursuit of likes on Instagram, and the easy accessibility of violent pornography. Layered on top is the addictive social media content feeding one TikTok after another to developing brains, tethering them to the platform for potentially hours on end.
But there are upsides, too: Kids socialize with friends over text, play mind expanding games like Roblox, explore their burgeoning passion for history, and develop new real-life skills in the kitchen. How the hell are we supposed to balance these two distant poles between limit-setting and exploration? The task feels nearly impossible.
When parents first hand their kid a phone we think to ourselves: I’m going to be so good at this phone thing. I’m going to prove all those doubters wrong. Yet, within a month, we understand what everyone has been talking about. The enforcement of limits feels exhaustively endless: I’m going to stomp on that iPad until it shatters into a million pieces. How many times do I have to tell you – no charging phones in your room! If you were paying me to drive you, you could sit on your phone in the back seat. But you’re not so get off!
It all came to a head when I discovered that my 12 year old had downloaded Snapchat — against my express rule that he needed to wait until he was 13. I should have been tipped off that this subterfuge was imminent when he asked me a series of questions like: Will I be grounded if I download Snapchat? Will you take my phone away if I do? How often do you check the apps on my phone? (Clearly, I was extremely distracted.)
I discovered it while he was on a work trip with me so even though I was furious, I did nothing about his deception until a couple of days later when we were home. Sitting on the kitchen floor together, I raised the issue in a calm and empathetic mode, but I was unprepared when he went ballistic (noteworthy for my even-keeled kid). When I made it clear he could not keep Snapchat on his phone, he explained that there are friends he cannot communicate with unless he has Snapchat. Without the app, he feels completely sidelined from certain social groups who are important to him.
My heart broke a little, because I knew he was not blowing this out of proportion. Sometimes our kids say Everyone else…(insert here whatever you’re denying your kid) and they’re full of it. But in this case I didn’t think he was exaggerating. And I had a realization. Since I set the Snapchat age limit for my oldest kid, the world had moved on and kids’ access to apps had aged downward significantly. I had not kept up with the times. On the other hand, I certainly couldn’t turn around and reward my kid for breaking a very clear rule I had set. So what was I to do? How could I both help him feel heard and not utterly capitulate to him?
- I validated his feelings. Instead of telling him he was overreacting, I made sure he knew I understood how hard it is to feel outside of things. I didn’t say a lot, but simply: I’m really sorry – that sucks to feel out of the loop.
- I held to my rule (for now). I made it clear that while I appreciated how difficult it was for him, it still didn’t justify his breaking my rule. I emphasized there would be consequences for his behavior.
- I asked him for ideas about consequences. Rather than dictating what the consequences would be, I asked him to come up with some ideas for me to consider. After a disastrous first try, he came up with some good ones.
- I gave him hope. I explained that while the ban on Snapchat was still in effect for now, I told him that thanks to his explanation, I would consider changing my position down the road. I gave him a date in a couple of months where we would revisit the conversation.
Did I handle it perfectly? No way. Do I wish I’d actively been in conversation with my kid about Snapchat ahead of time when I’d sensed (but ignored) that something was going on? You bet. Will I ultimately relent and let my kid on the app earlier than I had originally said? Probably.
But here’s what I come back to on a daily basis: I take the do-over because I will never be a perfect parent. I will blow it on a regular basis. This process is messy, for us and our kids. So the most we can hope for is to do our best and try again when we screw up.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.