By setting basic ground rules, parents can help children develop a balanced relationship with electronics and the internet.

Though parents today do know technology—whether you cut your teeth on Oregon Trail or came of age as the first smartphones were launched—we are venturing into the unknown in setting rules for children and their gadgets. 

What is the ideal age at which to give a child a smartphone? When should he or she be allowed to dip a toe into social media? Should I creep on her Instagram to make sure she isn’t getting into trouble?

Take heart: Even Bill Gates had to figure this stuff out. The founder of Microsoft told The Mirror newspaper in 2017 that his three children weren’t allowed to have cellphones until they turned 14. And those phones were forbidden at the dinner table. Predictably, “They complained other kids got [phones] earlier,” Gates said at the time.

Clinical psychologist Kelly Wesolowski began practicing at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in 2007, right before the first iPhone went on the market. She has seen attitudes shift as phones and tablets proliferated. “Back then, a lot of parents said, ‘I would never get my kid a cellphone,’ ” Wesolowski says. “Or they would get a flip phone. That isn’t always an option anymore.”

Get top reads, event recommendations, guides, parenting trends and more ideas for family fun. Subscribe to Columbus Parent’s weekly e-newsletter, The Bulletin.

A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that 12 and 13 were common ages for the first phone. In 2016, a survey of mothers by marketing firm Influence Central pointed to an average age of 10.3 years old. 

“I think most kids end up with a phone in the middle school years,” Wesolowski says. “And that sort of makes sense.” After-school care is rarely offered by that age, and extracurricular activities and sports practices require planning and communication. “Many families don’t have home phones anymore,” she says.

A 2018 Pew study found that 95 percent of teenagers have access to a smartphone, even if it’s not theirs. Forty-five percent of teens say they use the internet “almost constantly,” with the most popular sites being YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.

Obviously, some guidance is advisable. Kids are still kids. But what those rules look like will vary. “I don’t know that there is a right or wrong,” Wesolowski says. “It’s up to each family and what works best for each child.” 

Wesolowski recommends stashing kids’ devices somewhere other than their bedrooms at night, ideally a parent’s room. She also urges parents to follow their children on social media and have access to passwords, with the understanding that occasionally Mom or Dad will be checking those accounts. If all is well, trust will build over time.

She has worked with families to craft media-use contracts setting basic ground rules for technology use. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers an online tool with which to build a media plan. Understood.org also provides a downloadable contract with some questions that are great conversation starters.

A resource that Wesolowski recommends is Common Sense Media, which offers reviews of movies, apps and games, complete with age recommendations, and gives advice about all of these topics.

Clear expectations and open communication are the keys when establishing guidelines, Wesolowski says. “You want them to be able to come to you about what they see and what they learn out there, or if somebody talks to them that doesn’t seem quite right.” 

After researching studies on technology’s effects on children, Martha and Jay Hawthorne of the Northeast Side decided that they would put off screens and social media as long as they could for their three kids. Their oldest son, 19 and a college freshman, was OK with the edict that if he wanted a phone, he needed to earn the money to buy it and pay for a monthly plan. What made the lack of a phone or social-media presence tricky, Martha Hawthorne says, was that teachers at his Westerville high school would assign homework over Twitter. 

Their daughter, 16, has “been willing to hang with [the restrictions] so far,” Hawthorne says. But the youngest, 14, will play online games endlessly if you give him a chance, she says. Over the summer, she and her husband told him he had to spend his weekdays doing anything else, but he could have all of Saturday to be online if he chose. “He was kind of a monster on those days,” Hawthorne says. “He’d forget to eat. We’d cut him off by 8.”

This school year, they made a contract with him. He has 3½ hours to use his gadgets on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. (He argued for 4½.)

Denise and Jeff Barnes of Worthington and their three sons, ages 11, 13 and 14, have a schedule that’s booked solid with sporting events and practices, as well as school and church events. As busy as they are, though, Denise Barnes doesn’t believe that means her children need their own phones. “If the plans change and they need to reach us, everyone has a phone these days,” she says. “No, 99.9 percent of the time, these kids are using it for the data and not as a phone.”

The Barneses, like the Hawthornes, told their oldest son that if he wants more data on his prepaid Tracfone, he has to pay to refill it. “He doesn’t value putting money into it,” his mother says.

The Barneses use a Circle by Disney device to limit screen time and keep track of what websites the kids visit. Many similar devices and software packages are on the market.

Finally, while it’s not a formal rule, in their household it’s understood that family members won’t be glued to gadgets during events with extended family or at mealtimes. “I want them engaged with the other adults in their lives,” Barnes says.

This story is from the Spring 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.