Kids on their phones – Controlling the Uncontrollable


It’s a scene many of us can relate to quite easily: sitting across the table from a teenager eating their dinner while scrolling on their phone; talking to your child and their phone pings and the distraction takes them away from the conversation you were just having or constantly competing with a device for their attention.


As much as we can wish and dream it, we can’t deny that screens of all kinds are now an integral part of kids lives, with most owning a smart phone.   A study undertaken by Monash University and published in the Environmental Health Journal found that the median age a child received their first mobile phone was 8 years old.  Whilst many parents cite safety and the ability to contact their child as being the reason for purchasing the phone, it quickly becomes used for more than just checking where you or your child are at any given time.  Due to the apps on these phones and the freedom that it gives children, these devices become hard to live without and it’s likely that from that first phone purchase, this child will have a phone (or device of some sort) in their pocket for the rest of their lives.


If we accept this reality, then we must also accept the negative consequences that go with it.  Whilst there are scores of articles written on the pros and cons of technology in our lives, there are 2 areas that cause me the most concern when it comes to children with phones.


The first is that phones give children an excuse to retreat into a world that has different social norms and rules.

From the informal language of text messages which can affect spelling to the lack of face to face communication without a screen in between, there are children who are finding it harder to function in society and in relationships once things are off screen.   The phone becomes a virtual wall between parents and their children and stops the flow of face to face dialogue that we all grew up needing, appreciating and benefiting from.  There are also children who become so addicted to their screens that they simply cannot put them down. This in turn has negative effects on their physical and mental health.  The only answer to this is for there to be consistent limits on phone use which fit in with the dynamics of your home.

NSW’s Healthy Kids website advises that 2 hours a day is the recommended screen time limit and this includes smart phone usage. But that can be hard to monitor especially as children who have phones are probably not with their parents 24 hours a day. Whilst there is not much that can be done when you can’t monitor the time being spent on the phone, there is much that can be done once your child is home for the evening or is with you on the weekends.

It begins by leading by example.

How many of us can relate to the ritual-like routine of checking our social media feeds as soon as we wake or the curiosity to glance at your phone whenever it pings with a notification.  Many parents that I speak to are also happy for their children to be busy and occupied “even with screens” as it allows them to focus on other tasks or responsibilities.  We need to remember that our kids, even our teens, are modelling off our behaviour and habits, and learn from a young age the place of technology at home and in life. A more positive idea may be to ask your child to help you with the task you need to get done e.g.: making dinner, taking the dog for a walk or compiling the shopping list!

Another way to lead by example is to, as a family, consistently set aside ‘no screen zones”, like meal times, family games nights, or during quality 1 to 1 time between you and your child.

This can help begin to create for our kids (and for us), a break from the pressure and persistent distraction of screens and a focus on the things that matter most such as family connections.

There are also set times of day where phones can be limited.

One of those is late at night.  The direct correlation between headaches, eye strain and sleep disturbance and excessive phone use is well documented and can be avoided by instituting an age appropriate curfew where phones are given to you to charge overnight at a set time (at least an hour before lights out).

Children using phones in private in their bedroom can be a problem not only when it comes to sleep but also because of my second concern which is a well-known one – cyber bullying.  This is something we read about all too often and never want to believe could involve children we know.


As parents, the safety of our children must be our top priority. We all have a responsibility to protect our children and the statistics when it comes to cyber bullying are frightening.  One fifth of 8-13 year olds have reportedly seen or experienced something on the internet in the last year that bothered them, and around 17 percent of 12 to 13 year olds have reported being cyber bullied.  That means that as the adults who pay for the phones and have the power to limit the time spent on them, we need to do more to ensure that the children within our care not only are physically safe but feel emotionally safe as well.

In theory, the social media sites all have age restrictions and content blockers but the web offers opportunities for any person to access inappropriate content without even searching for it.  It can be very helpful to have a conversation with your child about which websites they are able to access and which social media sites they are active on.  Parents and guardians have a duty to educate the next generation about what is and is not appropriate, kind, moral and acceptable within their homes. That may mean blocking certain sites on your child’s smartphone or installing certain filters.  You may also choose to only allow access to certain social media platforms on the family computer. Having a master password to your child’s device, which provides you unlimited access to their social media accounts, gives you another channel to ensure that your child is interacting safely with others.  (For as long as you are paying the bill, your child shouldn’t have a problem with that)!

When it comes to phones, technology has moved much faster than the parenting textbooks and there is no one size fits all.

The first phone is a milestone for children today in the way that pierced ears, first dates and first time at home alone used to be. Yet, in the same way that these milestones were in a parent’s control, we need to take control again when it comes to children and their phones. We need to feel empowered, as parents, to educate and to challenge our teens and their growing minds about what is right and wrong.  They need to learn that the rules of the real world are really no different to the moral frameworks we must apply to our activities and input in the digital world.  Education and safety are number one but setting firm and consistent expectations around behaviour and the time and place for smart phones, will ensure the message of both is received.  By doing this, children will learn to view and use technology in a way that enhances their life, not detracts from it, a skill that is invaluable in a world where technology is not going away.


Article from Ariella Lew.  Ariella Lew is a Paediatric nurse with a consultancy firm, Kids on Track, based in Melbourne. Ariella writes extensively on parenting, behaviour management, family dynamics, sleep and toilet training.


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