“Is my kid ready for a phone?” And I say, “Well, I don’t know your kid, but are YOU ready to take on parenting a kid with a phone? Because it may be more work than you anticipate …” You think it’s going to be so convenient – but there are downsides, too.

Helping kids thrive in our digital world

A conversation with Devorah Heitner

by Tracy Carter

Kids these days! They can build an entire village in Minecraft, set up a whole new Netflix profile, and rattle off a list of their favourite YouTubers. But ask them to mow the lawns, make a phone-appointment, or unload the dishwasher, and suddenly, they’ve no idea where to start! 

Raising this new generation of tech-savvy kids is full of challenges for parents – who are often left scratching their heads or tearing their hair out! 

We turned to tech expert and author Dr Devorah Heitner, whose book Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World promises to ease our confusion and misery – and ease the confusion and misery our kids often feel over their tech-use as well.

GRAPEVINE: You’ve called your book Screenwise … what do you mean by that term?

DR DEVORAH HEITNER: Being screenwise is ensuring that devices are making your life better, not worse … that devices are supporting your goals and not just eating up your time in a mindless way.

GV: You also have a website ‘Raising Digital Natives’ – can you explain that term, too?

DEVORAH: The term ‘digital natives’ was coined by Marc Prensky in 2001. It’s been used in different ways, but I’m referring to the touch-screen generation who are growing up with all this digital technology as part of their everyday lives. They don’t really have a big learning curve – you hand them an iPad or smartphone and they can figure it out quite quickly.

Our kids have never lived in a time when you had to wait for the weatherman to come on TV to tell you if it’s going to rain tomorrow. They’ve never known a world where you couldn’t just ‘Google it’ if you want to know more about something.

But despite how tech-savvy kids may be, they’re still naïve when it comes to the potential consequences of their use of technology.

GV: You quote studies showing that, “for all their fluency, kids still demonstrate a real weakness when it comes to their tech world.” Can you tell us what these weaknesses are? 

DEVORAH: Well, kids can gather information online, but they’re not mature enough to properly evaluate and interpret the data they collect. They need help from adults to recognise sources that are reliable, and to process what they discover. 

And when it comes to things like managing your own time, handling conflict, or even how much information to disclose to others – these are lessons you learn from experience. Adults have a lot more real-world experience dealing with social issues – like feeling excluded or dealing with conflict – and we shouldn’t discount our expertise when we’re helping kids learn. 

The digital world may be a different medium to what we grew up with, but young people still face many of the same experiences and encounters with peers that we can relate to – and we can still support them. Even if we’re not familiar with Snapchat, Instagram or Fortnite – or whatever they’re using to communicate with one another – we understand the social nuances better than they do. 

GV: So you’re saying it’s our job to teach our kids how to navigate the digital world and use technology wisely – right? 

DEVORAH: Absolutely! There’s no other way. And we have to be intentional about that. When we were kids we could hear our parents on the phone. We could hear how they got off the phone if they needed to finish the conversation, or how they dealt with any conflict that arose.

Our phones are with us everywhere. They’re in our pockets or in our hands 24/7 – and our children aren’t reading our texts. They don’t see where we say, “Okay, let’s not text about this – let’s talk in person” if things are getting complicated. These are important skills that our kids aren’t witnessing.

They’re not seeing how we make the decision to move away from digital communication when there’s a need for face-to-face discussion. And because they can’t learn by observation, we need to talk about these things and be really clear with them. 

My own son was recently using Google Docs at school – and he and his friends were beginning to comment on the docs. I had to point out that his teacher could see everything he was saying … and something that sounds like banter to him and his friends could easily be construed as hurtful or insulting. When he realised that, he considered erasing his comments – but then it occurred to him that deleting his comments wouldn’t be fair on his friends, because their part of the discussion would still be there. I suggested that he tell them, too, about how the teacher could see what they were writing. 

My point is, they knew how to make comments, but they still needed help with the basic rules and subtleties of communication.

GV: Okay – how do you recommend families tackle the task of teaching their kids about the use of technology?

DEVORAH: Well, tech researcher Alexandra Samuel has identified three main approaches families take to technology. She says there are Limiters … Enablers … and Mentors …
Limiters are those parents who choose not to have a TV, or who are very restrictive – like allowing their kids to use tech for only a very limited time. Unfortunately, the kids of very rigid Limiters are often kids who end up lying or setting up fake accounts … 

I’m not suggesting that limits can’t be a part of mentoring – they absolutely can – but it’s not helpful to use limiting as your primary mode of dealing with tech. 

Enablers are the parents who give their kids the biggest and best – the fanciest tech – without thinking about how the device is going to be used, and whether or not their kids are actually ready for everything it involves.

“Is my kid ready for a phone?” And I say, “Well, I don’t know your kid, but are YOU ready to take on parenting a kid with a phone? Because it may be more work than you anticipate …” You think it’s going to be so convenient – but there are downsides, too.

Yes, you’ll be able to call them after soccer practice to arrange where to meet. But you’ll now have some extra responsibilities. 

I urge people not to give devices for Christmas; for most of us that’s a very busy, unstructured time with lots going on – not the best time to give your kids a powerful device. 

Mentors, the third approach, is the ideal. Mentors understand that, as a parent, you need to be teaching your kids what healthy limits look like. You need to be modelling those limits yourself … noticing how your kids behave around tech … and dealing with issues as they arise. 

At a basic level, you might say, “I notice that when you play that game you get really frustrated with your friends. What else could you do with them that wouldn’t result in you ending up in a fight?” But your involvement needs to go further – like the question: who should your child be in touch with?

We often blame our phones for stressing us out. But it’s not the phone – it’s who we’re in touch with, and how frequently we’re in touch with them. We need to carefully guard our contact information – not giving everyone in the world access to our hearts and minds by sharing our phone numbers or Instagram handles with them. And our kids need to learn that, too.

GV: Can you give us some simple suggestions so parents can better mentor their kids’ use of tech? 

DEVORAH: For starters, make sure there are set times for your family when the expectation is to be unplugged. It’s also helpful to know when they are using tech … who they’re contacting … and if they know how to deal with problems that can come up. 

I’d run through some hypothetical situations with them – ideally, before they happen. Situations that might result in conflict or require excluding people. Even before they have a phone – if they sometimes use yours, or when they use email – just run through some scenarios, like: “What would you do if people on a group text started calling someone names?” or “How would you handle it if you knew a friend was going to make a bad decision – like sharing a picture of themselves in their underwear?” 

Don’t always put your child in the starring role, because, if you say something like “How would YOU deal with it if you took an unfortunate picture and someone was threatening to publish it?”, they’re going to insist that they’d never do that! Instead, ask, “How would you advise a friend if THEY ended up in that situation? Who would you talk to? What could you do to help?” 

It’s so helpful for kids to think about issues like these and get good parental advice. And it’s useful for parents to see what their child’s level of discernment is like. If he/she has no idea what to do, maybe they’re not quite ready for a phone. You can then work with them, sharpening their judgement and demonstrating that you’re a resource they can use – that if they do run into problems, you’ll be there for them.

GV: As you say in Screenwise … mistakes are inevitable, so it’s essential we teach our kids ways to repair their mistakes – right?

DEVORAH: Absolutely. And, as a parent, it doesn’t hurt to talk about your own mistakes or regrets regarding social media – that time, for example, when you shared someone’s news and then discovered it wasn’t supposed to be public yet. We all make mistakes, so it’s really about how you go forward from that – the steps you can take to fix it.

You should also try to anticipate mistakes they might make. Like, if your son tends to lose things, don’t get him the latest smartphone. And if your daughter’s a social butterfly, set some limits ahead of time so she doesn’t end up feeling pressured to always be available to others through her device.

GV: What age do you feel is appropriate for kids to have their own smartphone – and to post on social media?

DEVORAH: I’d look more at their level of responsibility – and their level of reactivity. Are they inclined to react in inappropriate ways, or fly off the handle? With that kid you might want to wait a little longer. If you have a kid who’s pretty calm and centred, he/she might be okay (with supervision) – but other kids might need a little more time. 

It’s not so much about age as about the kid himself or herself. Like, when would you let this kid walk home from school on his own, or babysit a younger sibling for a few hours? And are they making their lunch and doing their homework without a lot of nagging? In other words, are they showing you that they’re mature enough? 

If you need to contact them, you might consider something else – like a walkie-talkie. Whatever device you get your kid, you’re going to be parenting around that device and dealing with unexpected use of it in some way. I’d never be smug about it: you have to make it clear that you’re there to support them – but you’re also there to make sure they don’t do anything really stupid.

I always warn parents that social media is going to ‘turn up the dial’ on whatever’s happening with their kid. If your child’s already a social butterfly, she may become preoccupied with her friends. SnapChat, Instagram, or a game might just become a fun new way to interact with others, but you have to be observant. It’s not that her friends are all of a sudden going to turn into horrible people who’ll say cruel things to her online – but you need to watch that she’s not staying up all night or feeling pressured to stay online when she actually needs to get homework done, or sleep!

GV: ‘Turn up the dial’ … that’s so true! A timely warning for mums and dads.

DEVORAH: Don’t get me wrong: parents might not need to feel concerned about the influence of social media on the mental health of a child who enjoys positive, healthy friendships – provided she’s using her phone to contact people who are nice!

If your child is already a bit lost or on the outside of things socially, having a phone or being on social media won’t necessarily improve things. What’s more likely is that having a phone and social media access will expose them to other troubled kids who are hanging out online all the time.

If your kid has experienced aggression – has been bullied, or has bullied others, or both – then it’s likely that they’ll continue to be affected by that. Giving a kid a phone isn’t going to turn them into a bully or a target, but if they’re already involved in a situation it might make things worse. 

And if your child already has body-image issues, maybe she shouldn’t spend hours on the web looking at models or, worse, chatting on eating disorder websites that actually promote anorexia or bulimia.

GV: Social media will obviously have a different impact on different kids. And, depending on their personality, it may affect their sense of identity, or their feelings of being left out … How should parents help their kids navigate those issues?

DEVORAH: Well, by being aware of the dangers and knowing some of the pitfalls. If your kid is socially isolated, look at what’s positive in their social lives. If they’re a big gamer and gaming’s a source of social interaction, then that can be okay – but you still don’t want them gaming all night! And maybe to add balance you can have their friends around for gaming but also include some other activity – so they can play but also make pancakes, or go outside for a while, or have a swim. 

For someone who’s a gamer and that’s the source of all his friends, you wouldn’t want to just take away games completely. Maybe you’d make a deal with him where he actually has to see his friends in person some of the time. You’d want to support other kinds of interaction as well. 

GV: ‘Knowing your child’ is obviously important when we’re evaluating when to say ‘yes’ to our kids’ requests for a phone. What else should we keep in mind when trying to make that decision?

DEVORAH: Yes, those ‘independence milestones’ I mentioned earlier are key. I mean, if a kid is so immature that he can’t be trusted at home alone, or can’t run a simple errand … if they can’t be without adult supervision, then why do they even need a mobile phone? 

In the book, I have a useful little section about ‘Before You Buy’ … 

GV: Okay. Once you’ve got your child a device, what rules do you recommend regarding their use of various apps? 

DEVORAH: For younger kids of primary age until they’re at least 13 or 14 years old, I’d advise parents to insist that the kids aren’t allowed to download apps without their permission. And don’t feel pressured to answer yes or no right away; you might have to do a bit of homework to find out about the app. It’s alright to say to your child, “I don’t know if this is okay for you – I’m going to do some research and I’ll let you know.” 

As they get older, if you’re sharing an account with them, for example, you can remind them that you’ll know whatever they download. And be aware that kids can hide apps from view, so look out for that! 

Basically, you need to be aware of what they’re doing on any given app.

GV: Parents are often afraid of what their kids might be getting up to with digital tech – but what does your research show kids are actually doing with their devices? 

DEVORAH: First of all, they’re communicating with others – all the time! They’re group-texting … air-dropping notes in class … consuming and creating content … and for the most part, they’re controlling their digital world with varying amounts of success (and with varying amounts of help from us). Sometimes we as parents are just supervising them – they know their way around setting up a Netflix profile, for instance – but, ideally, at ALL times we’re supporting them. 

Ultimately what we want is for them to be successful communicators, able to make good decisions for themselves.

But, of course, most kids don’t start out at that point …

GV: How about safe gaming? What are some tips you can give parents about whether or not to allow various games into their home?

DEVORAH: I’d say start by looking at the concept of the game or app before you even give them the X-Box or other gaming device. You also need to look at the kid: if this game or app brings about negative behaviour, if the kid starts to get too connected to it, if they become addicted, if the game creates problems within your family, then you need to re-evaluate. 

GV: What about Fortnite …? Any expert advice on this VERY popular game?

DEVORAH: Kids are really immersed in Fortnite. It’s lots of fun and there’s a social aspect to it.

But it’s also really violent, so we should think about their comfort level with that. What’s more, because new parties need to form all the time, it’s hard to take a break from Fortnite because kids feel like, “My friends are counting on me …” 

So I think kids need to go into game-playing with time limits – knowing when they’re going to stop, and sticking to that.

GV: It’s becoming more common for schools to encourage device-use in the classroom. Any challenges or pitfalls we should be aware of?

DEVORAH: If your school has a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy, it’s really important that teachers are trained well and good at it – or otherwise it’s not very effective. Teachers need to take responsibility … ensuring that if a student has a device out when they’re teaching, that he’s using that device for learning – taking notes, creating a model, or doing something specific with it. Otherwise, devices should be put away. 

It’s important for the teacher, parents and students to work together and have conversations about tech use.

GV: Even homework is often device-based these days. How can we help kids avoid becoming distracted on their devices – which also offer so many opportunities for entertainment and socialising? 

DEVORAH: Parents can help by making sure that their kids aren’t double- or triple-screening – have them put other devices away. 

It’s important to set time-limits – and don’t let your kids say they’ve got five hours of homework without checking in on them at times! 

It’s best if they’re working in a common area of the house, and make sure they limit distractions. There are some useful ‘distraction-blocking’ apps like LeechBlock and Freedom that some kids (and adults!) find helpful.

(I’ve posted on this topic in my blog – – and parents might find that a useful resource.)

GV: I see you’ve turned the tables and asked kids to create some rules for their parents’ own tech use. Could you share some of those rules with us? 

DEVORAH: Well funnily enough, many kids feel really frustrated that their parents are so involved with their phones all the time.

A lot of kids I spoke with really wish their parents would get off their phones when they’re driving – or at least not text and drive. They wish their parents would keep their phone conversations short when they’re around. And they wish their parents would avoid using phones at social times, like at the dinner table!

It’s a reminder, isn’t it, that ultimately we should be modelling what we expect from our kids. And we can all set a better example …


Clarify your own fears and desires. (What are you afraid might happen if they have their own device? What do you expect the advantages to be of them having a phone?)
Check in with your kid about why they want a phone. (Is it to fit in? Is it to be a part of plans others are making through their phones, which your child would otherwise miss out on?)
Teach your child some basic phone etiquette. (Make sure they know how to answer the phone, make a call, and leave a message politely. Practice with family members, and move on to things like ordering a pizza or call a shop to get business hours.)

Credit: adapted from Devorah Heitner, Screenwise