Daily Blog: Kids, phones and social media first principles

Finding balance when it comes to children and technology is a tricky thing. With our older children, we tended to be on the limiting side of things. Those were the years when children and teenagers were transitioning out of using regular phones and email to communicate and into using texting apps. In our old-goaty ways, we believed that their real friends would call them at home if they were real friends. But in the end, they were mostly living on the edges of the social life of the school and resented us for it. I’m not against children resenting parents in general. Most resentment morphs into approbation with a tad of maturity. But some resentments morph into bitterness and can lead to sneaky behaviour and general malfeasance. I saw that parents who were more flexible, keeping an eye on their children as they trained their judgment muscles, had children I admired. Very restrictive parents often had nice children, many never rebelled. But they were not necessarily growing into people I wanted my children to emulate. At some point, I went to a conference in Newfoundland for a few days and when I came back everyone had an iPod nano. The nano morphed into an iPod and it all went downhill from there.


We delt with bluntfacelying, dead-of-night bullying, all manners of drama. And that’s just the stuff we know about. Our children graduated from the iPod to the phone when we moved into a rental house and did not have a landline. We tried having a shared family phone but that only worked as long as the children didn’t need it at the same time. We had rules about no phones in bedrooms but that became hard to manage when some teenagers got jobs that called them in for shifts, others used their phones to listen to music and others used it as an alarm clock.

As a parent, it was hard to make a case for leaving the phones in the kitchen when I used my phone as a phone, a notepad, a music device, a recipe book, a camera, a watch, a map, and a magazine. We got a router with a timer that turned off at 10 pm and so far it’s the set-up that has worked the best. There is a router for grown-ups and a router for not-so-grown-ups. The children have a mix of phones and iDevices but the phones don’t have data. I don’t have to manage where each device is at any given time and if a big kid needs wifi after 10 pm (as is the case when they start studying later and preparing for exams), we can switch them over to the adult wifi. At 10 pm, the iPods and data-less phones turn into useless doorstops and the teenagers go to sleep. In a nutshell: what works one day may stop working the next. You need to be flexible and reasonable.

Our children have done everything you’re warned against. They created front public accounts on Instagram that we follow and fake Instagram accounts (Finsta) which are their real Instagram presence. They’ve gotten secret Facebook accounts that we discovered when they turned-up on my mom’s “suggested friends” list. They’ve blocked us on Snapchat and Twitter. People think that doing these things is the worst; but let me tell you: knowing about it is better than not knowing about it. Sure, I don’t know the content of the Finsta but I know that the Finsta exists. I don’t need to know everything that goes on in my teenagers’ lives, I just need to know enough to intervene if something bad happens.

My approach to parenting teenagers is the squeaky wheel approach: I let normal life happen as it must and react when something sticks out. To know that something sticks out, that a wheel is squeaky, you need to let normal happen. If you react to everything that offends your good taste or values, you will be on constant alert, I promise you. I call it the “third hole” principle of indignation, based on a story my daughter told me. She had gone to a Catholic girls’ Summer camp and the campers were piercing each others’ ears (….I know.…). One teenage girl had been prohibited by her parents to get her ears pierced and was concerned about being kicked out of the house. She had reason to believe it based on her older brother’s experience when his girlfriend had gotten pregnant. Son, mother, and child had been erased from the family until they got properly married. Well, that’s one way not to pass on the faith to your descendants I thought but whatever.

The “third hole” principle of indignation is that when everything is a red alert, nothing is a red alert. If you hit the roof about ear piercing, where is there left to go when your kid drives drunk or walks away from his pregnant girlfriend? You have to leave yourself some range, know what I mean? Keep righteous indignation for things that are righteously indignating.

Which brings me back to my tech-use first principles:

(1) Don’t try to keep up. Some parents delude themselves thinking that they are on top of things because they have their children’s login and passwords. Other parents feel like prohibiting one platform will keep their children safe from the ugly side of social media. Newsflash: you can’t keep-up. All media platforms have an ugly side and all media platforms (yes, even Snapchat) can be curated to avoid it. Thinking that you’re on top of things because you prohibited Snapchat or Twitter just lulls you into a false sense of safety. Work on trust and good communication instead of working on managing Facebook, it will pay off.

(2) Bad stuff happens at night. You know that feeling when you go out late at night and realize that your sleepy old town has a whole other life between 11 pm and 3 am? Teenage drama and harassment happen at night. You will avoid 90% of the problems by prohibiting phones in bedrooms and by curtailing online access at 10 pm.

(3) Try to understand by relating. We didn’t grow-up with social media but human nature hasn’t evolved that much in 30 years. Silicon Valley tech titans have found new ways of tapping into what delights and threatens us but we are essentially the same old humans we were in the ’80s. We had rules about when to call who, etiquette about where to hang out, cool kids and nerds. One of my daughters made real friends on Twitter. She wrote a tweet that was re-tweeted by one of her idols and she met a bunch of stans. Now they have a group chat and they Skype regularly, we even visited a few on some of our travels to Toronto and the U.S. Several follow me on Twitter and Instagram. They are a bunch of cute creative teenage weirdos that would never have met anyone like them if not for social media. It reminded me of pen pals back in the days. Agencies were dedicated to connecting pen pals and some made life-long friendships through writing. Look at social media as an extension of what made you tick as a teenager, you’ll find the commonalities in no time.

(4) It’s better to screw-up at home than far from it. I err on the side of permissiveness because I want to know what my children’s strengths and weaknesses are before they leave home. I want them to make mistakes while I can still help them manage the fall-out. Teenagers and young adults can make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. I don’t want the wild wild world to be their first teacher.

(5) Finally, start small and build on it. The tech genie is incredibly hard to put back in the bottle once you realize you were too permissive. It’s better to start small and add priviledges as your child shows that she can handle it than to try to reel-in an extra long rope after they hang themselves on it.