What if your kids already have screens, and you’re having second thoughts?

Written by Jonathan McKee
Published on August 06, 2021

It’s the most common question parents ask me at my parent workshops: “What is the perfect age to give my kid their first smartphone?” And my answer is almost always: “The summer before high school…a summer filled with dialogue about what it looks like to become screenwise. Think Deuteronomy, Chapter 6. Talking with your kids as they get up in the morning, walk along the road and go to bed at night. Not just a bunch of rules laid out. Meaningful conversation about stuff that matters.”

But that almost always brings up the second-most-common question parents ask: “What if I already gave my 12-year-old a phone, and now I’m having second thoughts? What now? Should I take it away?”

Their most prized possession

Great question. And here is one of those moments where you want to be very careful not to overreact and just yank your kid’s device away. That’s like telling your kid, “We’re going to Disneyland!” Then after buying the tickets and walking one hundred feet into the park, you look around skeptically at the crowd and announce, “Sorry, we’re going home!” 

This decision will have a psychological impact! “Remember when Dad took us to Disneyland for two minutes?” they’ll say. Kids love their screens. Big-time!  According to a number of surveys, it’s their most prized possession. So think through this decision shrewdly. And make sure you and your spouse are in agreement (even Stepmom, Stepdad, the ex—everyone), or your kids will start playing the adults against each other.  

Before you rush to take screens away from your kids, consider a few options. For example, age is a huge factor. If you already handed your eight- or ten-year-old a screen, then, sure, you could explain some of the dangers and take it away. But if you do, prepare for battle. This is something you gave your child and then revoked. That’s tough on a kid. 

A shrewder approach might be to sit down and talk with your kids about the dangers and then just set some very strict boundaries with the screens, letting your kids know, “If you violate any of these rules even once, say good-bye to your screen until age thirteen.” Then if your kids violate the screen rules, it’s much easier to take their devices away (not without whining and complaining), because at least they understand that it’s the punishment for violating the rules. 

Rules and responsibility

While you’re at it, access the parental controls on your kids’ devices and block out many, if not most, of the dangers. No, I’m not talking about filtering software. I’m talking about fully lobotomizing their phones, setting secure passwords, blocking the ability to download apps or social media without a password, and thinking of ways to limit screen time to a minimum. 

Minimizing screen time is better than taking your kid’s phone away and announcing, “Sorry. My bad. I should never have given you this phone in the first place.” For example, if you gave your fourteen-year-old a phone, and you’re just scared because of all the dangers, in 95 percent of cases, I wouldn’t take it away. In fact, I would consider giving my fourteen-year-old a phone if he or she asked for one (but I wouldn’t bring it up). That way, teens can start learning to be responsible before they leave the home. 

If your teens break a rule with their devices or prove to be irresponsible, sure, you might ground them without their phones for a period of time or until they prove they’re responsible. But taking away a phone just because you’re worried could have very negative consequences (and might be a very real example of what Paul was talking to Colossian dads about in his letter to them when he said, “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”) 

I’ve witnessed hundreds of parents overreact and become too restrictive with their teens. Typically, I’ve seen several negative results: Teens distance themselves from their parents—“Dad just doesn’t understand.” So they look to other role models from whom to glean values and learn how to make decisions. The parents’ impact is severely impaired. Teens cheat and find a way to access screens when Mom and Dad aren’t around. 

Discernment with screens

Rule of thumb: the tighter parents squeeze, the more the kids slip out of their hands. Parents panic and tip the scales toward boundaries, and then bonding suffers. 

Sadly, boundaries don’t teach our kids discernment.  Remember to keep your eye on the calendar. Someday your kids will be eighteen and will leave the house, free to download whatever they want. 

Are you preparing them for that day? Or are you just making every decision for them?  So how can you navigate these conversations? If you’ve already given your kids screens, think hard before revoking screen privileges. There are much better ways to protect them. 

If your kids are ten years old or younger, and you’ve already given them screens, maybe just use parental controls, screen limits, and guidelines to severely restrict access. If your kids are eleven to thirteen, and you’ve already given them screens, be proactive about connection before correction. They’ll appreciate your talking with them rather than just laying down the law.  

How do you talk with kids about screen privileges? 

Practice these six steps that I walk parents through in my new book Parenting Generation Screen, creating a climate of comfortable conversation about these issues: 

1. Create a family gathering

When you read something about kids and screens that piques your interest, bring it up at a family gathering. Break the ice with a fun question. For example, “If there was a power outage and all your screens and devices ran out of battery life, what would be the first thing you’d do for fun?” 

2. Read a technology study

Bring up the issue you’d like to talk about by reading a noteworthy paragraph or study. Then ask your kids’ opinions. Listen; don’t lecture. Just ask questions, such as . . .  “When did most of your friends get their phones?” “Why do you think so many tech experts tell parents to wait until their kids get into high school to give them phones?” “What are some of the things middle school kids would miss if nobody got phones or social media until high school?” “What problems might actually be avoided if middle school kids didn’t get phones or social media until high school?” 

3. Practice empathy and listening

Practice empathy by stepping into your kids’ shoes and trying to understand their viewpoints and feelings. Don’t criticize their responses; just listen.  

4. Ask questions

Ask your kids, “What do you think is best? How would you solve the problem at hand?” Or, in this case, ask, “When do you think parents should allow their kids to get their own phones?” 

5. Think and pray before acting

Delay correction or decisions. Actually walk away. Don’t rush to set boundaries or impose a decision right away. Tell your kids you need some time to think and pray about the situation. You might practice these steps over and over. Then, eventually, you’ll add one final step: 

6. Plan ahead

Set a time to talk about what you’ve read and make some decisions about screens. Give your kids advance notice. You might say, “This Thursday we’re going out for pizza to talk about how we can become screenwise in this house.” Are you having these conversations?

Adapted from Parenting Generation Screen: Guiding Your Kids to Be Wise in a Digital World by Jonathon McKee Copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Focus On the Family. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Looking for other resources on screens? Check out the articles below:

  1. Here’s what to do if your kid is screen-addicted
  2. Helping your son navigate the digital age
  3. Balancing Busy with Bored

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Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of more than twenty-five books, including Parenting Generation Screen, Teen’s Guide to Face-to-Face Connections in a Screen-to-Screen World, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, and The Guy’s Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone In Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide and provides free resources on his website, TheSource4Parents.com.

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