Question

How can I help my children learn to communicate with others in a healthy way? Smartphones are taking over the younger generation, with texting and other apps taking the place of face-to-face interactions. It seems like these things can easily become extremely consuming for people of all ages, but particularly for teens. Can you outline what age-appropriate, healthy interactions would be? Can you also suggest guidelines, expectations, rules, and approaches that would help ensure my children’s use of these technologies (phones, texting, social media apps, etc.) will be healthy and appropriate and not interfere with them developing relationships? For example, at what age would you consider it appropriate for children to have their own phone?

Answer

The fact that you’re asking such a thoughtful question about your children’s social development tells me you won’t have a problem teaching your children how to navigate relationships in this complex media-saturated environment. While I don’t have a specific answer for all families, I can share some principles to help you guide your children toward healthier relationships with themselves and others.

First, I encourage you to clarify the emotional, relational, and spiritual lessons you want your children to learn as they grow up. Then, make sure technology isn’t preventing those lessons from happening. I don’t see tech as the enemy. In fact, these incredible tools can help reinforce timeless lessons in ways that support our parenting goals. Every new technology comes with gains and losses. Understanding these improvements and detriments is a critical part of intelligently adapting new technologies.

For example, if you want your child to be more inclusive of others, they can use texting or social media to reach others who might feel left out or marginalized. On the other hand, left unchecked, they could use those same apps to bully and exclude others. Our devices don’t create our values, but, instead, only amplify them.

I’ll share a personal example from my own parenting journey. It’s important to us that our children learn how to solve problems on their own. We don’t want to be so immediately accessible to them that they don’t learn how to face minor dilemmas on their own and solve them. When our children were younger, we chose not to give them their own phones so they could learn how to think for themselves before automatically calling mom and dad to solve their problems. One time, my then 10-year-old son was riding home from school on his bike and his chain broke. Instead of calling us for a ride home, he figured out how to put the chain back on his bike and ride home. He felt so proud of himself for solving his problem and getting himself home.

Now, this may panic some parents who believe that children need constant access and supervision from adults so they don’t get hurt. However, I believe children need regular experiences where they can solve problems and face challenges, so they know they have what it takes to succeed in life. It takes creativity and intentionality to transmit these lessons when devices can so easily undermine healthy development.

Once you figure out the lessons you want your children to learn, look and see if devices will facilitate or hinder those lessons. Some children can have their own phone and still learn the lessons you want them to learn. Other children may benefit more from waiting to have regular access to that technology until they’ve mastered those lessons.

We also wanted our children to learn how to start conversations face-to-face and engage with others. Granted, this is more challenging now because the very peers we wanted them to practice with often have their own heads buried in their phones. Nevertheless, we still encouraged and coached them on how this is done. I believe it’s critical for them to learn these lessons, so they’ll be confidant and engaged employees, family members, and citizens.

One of the best resources I’ve read that helped me organize my thinking about this issue is a book called “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, by Sherry Turkle. She’s an MIT professor who studies the relationship between humans and machines and how these relationships ultimately change us. She is hardly a Luddite and enthusiastically embraces all forms of technological advancement. However, she also speaks directly about how these technologies change the way we think, develop, and interact with one another.

Here are a couple of key points from her book:

“As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?”

“Connecting in sips may work for gathering discreet bits of information, they may work for saying, “I’m thinking about you,” or even for saying, “I love you,” but they don’t really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other. And we use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can really matter because it can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.” 

Many parents tell me they don’t want their children to be left out or they worry their children won’t know how to navigate the world we now live in if they don’t have access to devices. These are understandable concerns, as virtually every kid has their own device, and no one wants their child to be left behind. Even if you choose to give your children a phone, make sure they are having enough interpersonal experiences without them only happening through their device.

You can start by making sure there are clear and consistent rules about how tech will be used in your home. For example, we have a rule in our family that meals are tech-free. Parents and children don’t answer phones or texts during meals, allowing for real connection to happen. Make sure your own use of devices isn’t interfering with your relationships with your children. Are you on your phone when you pick your kids up in the car? Does your constant checking of your phone get in the way of relationships in your family? Make sure you’re not so consumed by your own device that your children learn disconnection from your example.

Children need to have access to emerging technologies so they can navigate the world. However, the learning curve for being a healthy person who can tolerate uncertainty, make decisions, be considerate of others, handle uncomfortable emotions, deal with boredom, control impulses, and other vital life lessons is much steeper than learning how to post a status update. Focus on your child becoming a good citizen with siblings, peers, and adults as they slowly move into digital citizenship.

As you set rules about devices and tech in your home, you are opening up opportunities for your children to develop in ways that will put them in touch with the Spirit of the Lord so they can know themselves and their purpose. Understanding these truths about themselves will serve as a better guide than anything you can tell them. Elder M. Russell Ballad taught, “we all need time to ask ourselves questions or to have a regular personal interview with ourselves. We are often so busy and the world is so loud that it is difficult to hear the heavenly words ‘be still, and know that I am God.’[i] He invited us to examine how much quiet time we have in our lives and challenged everyone to seek for more quiet time.[ii]

As worried as we all are about inappropriate content available to our young people, the bigger concern is that these devices will consume so much of our time and attention that we will disconnect from the true and iving Fountain of Truth.

As you first plan for the relationship and personal lessons you want your children to learn, it will be easier to see how tech can be a tool to help them accomplish those goals. In some cases, devices will get in the way of accomplishing those goals. Your deliberate and intentional implementation of these lessons will help your children learn how to connect to themselves, others, and God in ways they might not do if left to their own devices.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument

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About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.


[i] Doctrine and Covenants 101:16

[ii] “Be Still and Know That I am God”, Elder M. Russell Ballard https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/print/ces-devotionals/2014/01/be-still-and-know-that-i-am-god?lang=eng