As parents, we’ve spent, what, zillions of hours trying to figure out how to set rules that help our kids manage their devices and screen time in sane and healthy ways.
Pretty much an uphill battle, right?
So researchers tried something a little different. They flipped that question around.
What if, they asked, kids were the boss of us when it came to setting all those technology rules. What would that look like?
It’s fair turnabout.
To explore that question, University of Michigan and University of Washington researchers surveyed 249 families with kids ages 10 to 17 in 40 states. They found that just about all the parents had rules—481 different rules, in fact—mostly limiting what their kids could do online.
“Kids are getting a lot of signals about how to use technology at school and from parents, and they’re really trying to articulate right from wrong,” says Sarita Schoenebeck, the study’s co-author and an assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Information.
But Schoenebeck’s study found that kids also had a few rules of their own to suggest for us:
Please don’t use your smartphone when I’m trying to talk to you.
Look at me. Listen to what I’m saying.
That’s what kids said most loudly and clearly in the study.
“It surprised me that both parents and kids emphasized ‘be present.’ That showed a level of maturity in the kids,” Schoenebeck, a mom of two, told me.
It’s not the first time kids have collectively complained about our noses in our screens. Harvard psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair (who wasn’t associated with this UM-UW study) said it “knocked my socks off” how universally kids—of all ages—say they hate competing with devices for their parents’ attention. She interviewed more than 1,000 kids ages 4 to 18 for her book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.
It’s hard, she admits. Our brains are as addicted to devices as our kids’ are. One quick peek seems harmless, especially if it’s for work, or an emergency, or…
Even so, it’s startling to recognize how much they notice. And hate it—at least when they want us to be listening.
“It’s not that they want more time and attention overall from parents,” Schoenebeck says. “What they want is better quality time. They see it as kind of annoying when they want to tell you something but you’re on your phone.”
Ultimately kids want our levels of attention to be in sync, she found in a second, smaller study. Meaning: If I want to talk, I want you to be all ears, no device. But if we’re both using a device while spending time together (like watching a movie), that’s okay.
Please don’t share anything about me on social media without asking.
“Sharenting” (parents sharing stories and photos of their kids on social media) is another huge annoyance to tweens and teens.
“Kids are really starting to speak up about it,” Schoenebeck told me. “Twice as many children as parents expressed concerns about family members oversharing personal information about them on Facebook and other social media without permission.”
They’re “embarrassed” and “frustrated,” she says, by parents publicly contributing to their online image. (An earlier University of Michigan study found the habit starts long before kids can complain about it—like, as soon as they’re born! So it can be hard to know when to pull back.)
“They want control over what’s shared about them,” she says.
Kids have the same beef with friends. But it tends to be less of an issue there because they often mutually agree to not tag one another’s pix, or only to tag after getting an okay, according to the study.
Parents: Ask us first, these older kids are begging.
Please quit with the double standards.
If phones aren’t allowed at the dinner table for kids, parents shouldn’t whip them out, either, say kids. They’re smart. “Do as I say, not as I do” tends not to work very well in most areas of parenting.
In general, kids found rules easier to live with—and obey—when they applied to everyone in the house. “It’s a struggle to establish rules that aren’t so overreaching that no one will follow,” Schoenebeck says. “Really strict rules just set you up to break them and feel bad.”
Kids told the researchers (and data confirms) that one particular rule—no phones at the table—is realllly hard for them to follow, too.
Please don’t text while driving.
Really, Mom? Do I have to tell you this?
No, Dad, not even at stoplights.
Surprised this would bother hot-thumbed teens? Schoenebeck guesses that future studies might tell us more about the breakdown by age. One possibility: All kids know distracted driving is wrong, but they have trouble following through once they’re the ones behind the wheel.
“A lot of tech rules are like diet and food,” she told me. “You know there’s a ‘best behavior’—eat healthy—but it’s a struggle to manage that behavior when there’s a piece of cake and it looks good.”
At least, she adds, kids are getting the message early about what’s safe.
Please don’t make all my tech rules without me.
“When kids feel like they have a part in the rule-setting process, it makes it easier for them to follow and easier for parents to enforce,” Schoenebeck told me. “It benefits both sides—that’s pretty powerful.”
Too often, the research showed, our kids feel we only tell them what to stop doing—without understanding more deeply how they use their apps and devices. Teens told the researchers that some behaviors that made their parents anxious—switching between homework and socializing on a single device, for example—was just how they do things, not a problem.
Here’s one of the more surprising finds in the study. Even when kids think certain rules are fair, they said they’re easier to follow when they outlaw a certain type of tech entirely: No Snapchat, for example. No shooter video games. It’s much trickier for them when rules limit media use only in certain situations, like no texting with friends after a certain time.
But yeah, it’s hard for all of us.
We’re all fighting what researchers call “creeping availability,” the expectation that we should be able to communicate and access information any time, anywhere.
We’re all figuring out what this means for one another, and for being a family.
It’s a struggle that starts early, notes Schoenebeck, whose own kids are just 5 months and 2. “Social media is such a lifeline now. It’s always tempting to pull out your phone. This research has made me more empathetic about how hard it is—for parents and kids.”
One thing’s really clear, though: They may be staring at their screens, but they’re watching us.