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What happened when we limited our kids’ use of electronics

Kid and teens on electronic devices

Fabio Principe | mooremedia | | Shutterstock | Collage by Aleteia

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 02/18/24

Too much technology can be distracting and encourages solitude. My wife and I took drastic action that has paid dividends in our family.

About six months ago, my wife and I announced to our six children that they were no longer allowed to have their phones in their rooms. All phone usage was, from that moment on, confined to the main living area of the house.

They were not happy.

We knew there was going to be blowback, but my wife in particular was adamant that we needed to push ahead with the idea. All parents have different approaches to the cell phone problem, and our ideas on it haven’t always been the best or most consistent. One constant, for our family at least, is we’ve always been hesitant about putting too much technology in the hands of our children, and they’ve never been allowed to have their own phones until the age of 13. Even then, their phone usage was tightly controlled.

Internet access was only granted slowly as my kids matured, and only then for the use of certain messaging apps in order to communicate with friends and sports teams. They weren’t allowed free reign on Tik-Tok or social media. Even YouTube usage was carefully monitored after we discovered how addictive it is and how the algorithm has a tendency to make unsuitable suggestions.

The seductive power of the smartphone

All the same, handing a 13-year-old a cell phone is a dangerous thing. As a tool, a phone really is a two-edged sword. Over years, the siren song of the smartphone is extremely seductive. I know this to be true from personal experience. As a mature adult who ought to know better, some years ago I realized I was spending too much time on my phone. I was spending too much time alone, looking at my phone at the playground when I should’ve been playing with my toddler, and I was even beginning to show an inability to physically focus on reading a book anymore. Life was passing me by.

I took drastic action, deleting all social media apps off my phone (now I only use social media in controlled amounts of time on my laptop). I figured out how to remove the little red bubbles on my email and text message icons that indicate if there’s a new message in the inbox. Then I removed all the home-screen notifications except those from the calendar. With the notifications all gone, I no longer felt the temptation to constantly check emails and texts, which were often either related to work or mindless group text chats.

Like father, like children

We noticed this same addictive effect in our children with their phones. After dinner, the older kids would scatter to their bedrooms to interact with electronic screens. We had to actively collect them in order to play a family game or go for a walk. We also found that they were pushing the boundaries on the limitations we’d set in place with the phones. When a teenager is on the third floor and mom and dad on the first, that’s plenty of space to sneak in a few rule-breaks.

Any parent knows that it’s exhausting to constantly make the rounds in the house policing everyone’s behavior. It’s also a whole ordeal to have to gather everyone back up for family time. Over time, inertia takes hold. It’s easier to let the kids have their way than to be constantly fighting it.

We needed a different plan, one that would easily and naturally make space for family togetherness. We didn’t want to feel like a war we were constantly waging war against our own children (and in my own case, my own worst addictive impulses). My wife had the brilliant idea. Let them continue to use their phones within the boundaries we’d set, but only in the shared family space.

Here’s what happened, and why the idea worked so well.

A household transformed

After being sullen for a few days, the teens adapted. Now, in the evening after dinner, instead of disappearing into their rooms, we all linger around the dinner table and talk. No one is in a hurry. Then, later, when they do pick up their phones we’re all more-or-less in the same room. One of them sees a funny meme, laughs, and shows her siblings. They all laugh together.

Another teen might start talking to a friend on speakerphone and the toddler annoyingly will chime in. The chat becomes more of a group chat and doesn’t isolate the one who’s on the phone. Meanwhile, one of the kids is showing another how to search for Queen albums on Spotify (they have odd musical predilections).

And the greatest miracle of all? The kids talk to us without it feeling forced. They spend time with their mother, often helping her with sewing and embroidery projects. Our older children collaborate on puzzles with the younger ones. They help their mother cook dinner. Occasionally, I manage to convince one of them to play chess with me. In the meantime, my wife and I can hear their conversations, see the screens on their phone, and easily monitor the activity. Everything has become so much easier. Our family life is so much better.

As impressed as I am by families who all have healthy relationships with their electronics and none of the kids struggle with finding the right balance between using their phones and in-person sociability, it simply wasn’t happening for us. With one simple change, though, we’ve made great strides towards overcoming our phone challenges and strengthening our family time.

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