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How to Win the Battle Against Your Teen’s Cellphone

Getting your kid less addicted to tech means living by example

Illustration of dad taking phone away from daughter
Rodrigo Varejão

Your child’s smartphone is smarter than you. Not like IQ smarter or street smarter. I mean that a smartphone will always outsmart you if you try to limit the way your teenager uses it. 

Go ahead and tell your daughter that she’s not allowed to have Snapchat. She will load it onto her phone when she walks out the door and delete it just before she comes home. 

Just try installing a firewall on your son’s phone so that he can’t browse forbidden sites. He will find a hacker at school good enough to punch a digital hole right through it. 

And in the end, you will have amplified the distrust that naturally arises between parents and adolescents—the very thing you’re trying to avoid as you navigate the rocky shoals of ages 13 to 18.  

The reason your efforts are in vain is that you are being massively outspent on the attention-economy playing field. 

Last year Apple doled out $21 billion on research and development. Facebook (I’m still not ready to refer to the owner of Instagram and WhatsApp as “Meta”) threw $18 billion into its R&D kitty. A huge portion of this R&D is focused on keeping your child’s attention. 

After years of struggling with my teenager’s tech (and even writing a book on the subject), I came up with four principles that have helped me and my teenage son come to an amicable tech truce.

1. Educate 

No teen likes the idea that someone is secretly pulling his strings. So, show them the strings. Sit down and watch Beau Burnham’s fantastic film Eighth Grade together. Take some time with your teen to screen The Social Dilemma. And if you’ve got a reader on your hands, introduce him to Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation.

2. Model 

As the supposedly responsible adult in this relationship, you can and should model better impulse control over your own iPhone usage. 

A good rule of thumb is to shut your phone down as much as possible during the dwindling windows when your teen is actually at home with you. 

3. Negotiate

If you haven’t given your children a smartphone yet, consider having them sign a user agreement, like the one tech entrepreneur Jennifer Zhu Scott had her kids sign before they were allowed to start phoning it up. 

If an official point-by-point contract seems excessive, you can at least come to an agreement on specific times of day during which both of you will not use your devices. Mealtimes are the obvious choice. Can’t agree on breakfast? Settle for dinner. Any break from tech where conversation is encouraged is a plus on your ledger. 

4. Trust 

When you were in high school, would you have agreed to wear the equivalent of an ankle bracelet as you flitted from sports practice to a date to a party?

Teens use their phones to emote, chat, socialize and do all of the other things you did when you were in high school. To deny them these avenues or to track their every move is to curtail their experience of being a contemporary teenager. 

But as the stewards of our teens’ emotional development, we parents can and should be the models and the guardians of empathy. 

Step back from the phone war you’re having with your child and focus on the kind of adult you want them to become. For me, I’d be proud to have a grown son who is there for his friends and family when they’re in pain, who can experience a deep belly laugh at a joke told in real time and who in his heart feels that his relationships with other human beings depend on a reciprocity of trust, understanding and care.

No, you will never outsmart your child’s smartphone. But you can out-love it.