My summer of Tweens, Teens and Screens

I've had a summer largely away from screens. Imagine - barely engaging with Instagram! Instead I've been busy with the kids. Holidaying. Doing stuff at home. Taxiing. Meeting up with other Mums and kids at the park/museum. It's been blissful. Sure I've lost a few followers, but I'm always philosophical about that. And it's been a good reminder that Instagram isn't life, for me, family is where it's at.

I thought I would miss being online. Being active and social online takes up a lot of my time (during the school term at least). But in fact, stepping away from screens actually gets easier as the days go by and get filled with kid stuff, family stuff, and IRL stuff.

I'm lucky enough to work from home, working for myself and choosing when I work. Actually the school holidays dictate when I do and don't work so it is not so much a choice or luck, as it is the way my working life with 3 school age children has evolved. And over the years there have been times when I have found this frustrating as there are always ideas I have and want to develop, but instead I have to park them in the hope that I will pick them up again with the same enthusiasm when I get child free time - when school starts again.

So I have learnt that instead of getting lost in the frustration of this, it is way more productive, not to mention kinder to me and the reality of my situation, to frame it a different way. 

I choose to see it as this - I've had the privilege of being part of my children's summer, again. I've had the privilege of meeting their friends, of having days out in the sun and rain, of taking time to be a family together, and I've learned a lot about my kids and all that being a Tween/Teen/Digital Native in 2018 entails - a lot of Drill music, Snapchat and Fortnite it seems.


We have rules around screen use. Always have. But these days, having been through some early experiences, it's more about time limits. I feel I can trust them and I can mostly leave them to their online lives in the knowledge that they know the rules and would let me know if there was anything they needed to share with me.

But in the early days when phones first started appearing in their lives (year 6/7) we had a LOT of rules. I think this was more about me than them in the beginning. Kids getting online and social felt like such an unknown. And in my book it is easier to have rules and start to relax them than it is to impose rules later.

I have always had an open book approach to screens. I rarely use parent filters on technology - the kids are way ahead of me here and know how to access stuff that is beyond my level of skill. And so rather than try to catch them I have chosen to keep conversations very open and try to learn with them - we are in this together!


So these are the rules we started out with:

1. Own it - I, the parent, am my kids' greatest screen role model. My children have learnt all their best and worst online habits from me. So model what you want them to do and accept that if they are getting it wrong so might you be. 

2. No screens before school/in bedrooms/at the dinner table - There are some places that screens are just not welcome. For me that is anywhere we should be totally social (dinner table) and anywhere they want to be completely private. 

3. 'I need to know your passcode' - An absolute must. There is way too much weirdness out there. Too many potential dangers. You need to be around when they are online and you need to be getting nosy! I have learnt the hard way that you need to be online with your kids. You need to monitor their use as you used to when they were in the park and getting to know other new kids. You need to be coaching them in online etiquette. And once they know the rules you can back off a bit.

And if you change the passcode your phone will be confiscated. No chances taken here.  

(nb - This rule has been relaxed with my oldest who is 15. At some point kids need to gain their complete digital freedom. She has learnt during years 7 - 9 about the pitfalls of online life and we have talked a lot. I feel that I can trust her judgement, but am still there for her as necessary).

4. Never post anything you wouldn't want Granny to see - this rule has been surprisingly effective with our children. As far as I am concerned, explicit swear words or innappropriate pics are never acceptable, and somehow the image of Granny reading their posts has done a good job of keeping things clean.

They're not angels though, and we have dealt with situations where the content has been less than acceptable.

5. Time limits - maximum 30 minute sessions. This is to do with children's brain development - there is a lot of research about social media/online activity and children's brain development. And the sessions placed far enough apart so that they can get things done (homework/eating/life)

6. Limited sessions - maximum of 2 -3 sessions daily (1 - 1.5 hours max). This may sound like a lot but kids these days are not watching TV. They are watching YouTube and getting social. So think of it as the equivalent of coming home and crashing on the sofa with Grange Hill/Neighbours/Home and Away.

7. Keep your settings private - this works with younger tweens, less so with teens who want to grow their following. But it is definitely worth keeping privacy settings high with younger children as you just don't know who is looking at their cute 'Musically' videos, YouTube channel or joining their WhatsApp group.

As for teens, by the time you think they are ready to go public with their settings they will have about 500 other young people keen to 'follow' them, mostly friends of friends of friends (!) from other schools.

Don't worry too much about this (assuming you've taught them well up to this point), young people are terrific guardians of each other and are quick to kick off anyone who is not known to them or even one of their own who is being an a**hole.

8. Sit with them and go through their phone with them regularly - this is not an invasion of privacy, this is taking an interest. This is not judging and criticising, this is asking questions and being supportive. This is checking that they are ok with what they are viewing and checking that their friends are ok too.

I have also used this as a useful starting point for big conversations (think self harm, depression, suicide, sex, alcohol, drugs - yes, you need to go there).

I have taken screen shots of dodgy content and sent it to school so that the staff can follow up with a vulnerable girl. 

I have taken a screen recording of 3 teens I know joy riding a 'borrowed' Mercedes around the local town late at night and send it to their parents, (yes I was a bit anxious to do this as I did not want my source getting called 'Snake', but as a fellow parent I would prefer to know wouldn't you?).



In the end, it is not an exaggeration to say that we are somewhat blindly guiding a new generation who, unlike our own childhoods, will always know screens and digital life.

And it is our responsibility to keep up and be part of the conversation otherwise we risk burying our heads in the sand and missing huge opportunities to engage with our children, learn from them, and move forward in a supportive, loving way together. And what better way to move through family life? 


I'd be interested to hear about your experiences. Email me with your comments and let's chat!

Caroline UdallComment