I have two children, aged nine and 11. We’ve always limited their tech but just before the pandemic, we bought them tablets to give them access to education, entertainment and their friends. Then I became concerned about their increasing use and placed more limits on screen time.
Full disclosure: I am a phone addict. So I introduced a rule where we all put our devices in a box when we aren’t using them (I break this rule most). During the last lockdown, we got my older child a phone. She had already asked for TikTok – her friends all had it, but I refused because it has all sorts of age-inappropriate stuff. However, that was how her friends communicated, so I allowed it as long as it was a private account on my device, so I could monitor it and her messages. She agreed to this reluctantly. I know I need to step back, but how do I do that without neglecting my duties as a parent?
I have now allowed her to have her own access to TikTok, because she felt left out of conversations at school, but told her that I would check what she posts from time to time. Have I made the wrong choice? What is the right balance? Am I being too controlling? I would love some reading material on this.
A lot of parents worry about technology, and there is a tendency to be really strict (which isn’t realistic) and then feel unconfident about the decision, and so give in – then it goes into freefall. But this issue doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Some parents use the minimum age for users as a get-out, as in, “It’s not my rule – it’s not allowed.” TikTok’s minimum age is 13.
Your long letter bounced all over the place from rules to leniency to over-control to changing your mind, and I think you have excellent awareness of this. This is to be applauded, but you need clarity and consistency. Rachel Melville-Thomas, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), said: “This is really about anxiety; the fact that it happens to be about phones and tablets is, I think, a funnel for your worries. Your terror is possibly about your daughter spreading her wings.”
When your children were younger, it seems your rules were followed and that made you feel in control. With older children, it’s more about negotiation than being prescriptive. As children get older, they need to learn to navigate for themselves.
Melville-Thomas wondered where your partner was in all of this: “Who is helping you to balance things?” This is a load best shared.
Technology is part of our lives, so better than an all-out ban or intense scrutiny is to teach your children that they can come to you if they get it wrong. If you are too censorious, that won’t happen. Once you have said yes to social media, it’s very hard to go back, so you need to come up with some realistic rules together. Sit down as a family and talk about your concerns and needs. You could agree on no phones upstairs, say, or at mealtimes. This sort of collaborative effort is not only more likely to be adhered to, it also shows your children that you trust them and care what they think. But although you will discuss this as a family, remember that you are the adult and have the final word.
Also, you need to lead from the front. If you can’t keep to the rules, they will see you as inconsistent and hypocritical – not a label any parent wants. “All parents struggle with consistency,” Melville-Thomas says. “So if you make a mistake, you can say, ‘I thought it was OK to allow you this but I think we need to review it.’”
You asked for reading material; Melville-Thomas recommended Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle, which focuses on what we lose if we’re all staring at a screen.
In your longer letter you say you don’t use social media, but it’s a good idea for parents to have an understanding of it. Comprehension usually dilutes the fear, and at least you will be able to speak from experience. Also: stop reading their messages. You don’t need to know everything that goes on. You are not teaching your children about trust or autonomy by doing this.
Children develop by making mistakes and overcoming them. Think of this as a physical thing, say walking – you wouldn’t try to hold on to them all the time. They need to learn balance. And they do here, too.
Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected] Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.