Smartphone Under the Tree?

If there is a smartphone under the tree for your child, we recommend you use the next week to wrap your brain around the changes that lie ahead. If you haven’t taken the time to talk with your kiddo about the dangers of sharing information online, pornography, sexting, cyberbullying…the time is now. (If you need more details about why this is urgent, check out this article from Bark and this one from the Dallas Morning News. Be forewarned that the content is graphic and disturbing.)

When it comes to setting boundaries with new devices, it is much easier to start with strong limits and release them slowly, rather than trying to put them in place during a time of stress. (Learn more at Ride. Practice. Drive.) So before you let them dive in, consider giving them this even greater gift: clear expectations from the get go. If this doesn’t sound like a magical start to your Christmas day, we gotcha covered! Here are five topics to talk about. Feel free to print them as a contract that you and your child each initial!


This phone does not belong to you; it belongs to me, your parent. It is a tool, not a toy — and it has the potential to harm you if you don’t learn to use it in healthy ways. I bought it, and for Christmas, I am giving you the gift of loaning it from me. If it falls through the bleachers, shatters on the sidewalk, or vanishes into thin air, you are responsible for the replacement costs or repairs. You might have noticed that people tend to get absorbed in their devices and ignore the things that matter most. How can we make sure that we use this new device to support the things that matter most to us? When we accidentally phub each other (snubbing each other for our phones), what’s a way we can signal to each other that we need some face-to-face time? (Tip: At Screen Sanity, we tell our kids to alert us when our own phone use isn’t very “Screen Sanity”ish.)


Our phones need to recharge, and we do too! That’s why from this point forward, we are going to have device-free zones: mealtimes, bedrooms at night, and when it goes to school, it should stay in your locker. I will not text you during class. I’m going to show you right now where you can plug your phone in when it’s time for you to unplug and go to bed. (Parents — give yourself permission to create your own device-free zones — you deserve a break too!)


I love you. The internet is not looking out for your well-being, but I am. And there is nothing that you could do or see online that would make me love you less. Accidents are bound to happen; you will make mistakes. And when they do, I will be here to walk you through them. I will not freak out or judge you. I will not throw your phone in a lake somewhere. I am a safe person. You can talk to me. Because I love you, I’m not letting you go into the digital world unprotected. Let’s talk about safety nets. First, I need you to keep me updated on your passwords, so I can check in on you and spot areas where you might get hurt or need help. I won’t hover over you, but I promise to check in randomly to make sure you are being true to yourself online. Second, we are going to take a moment and download a filter (like OurPact, Securly, Disney’s Circle, or Bark) on your phone, but I want you to know that these won’t protect you from everything. Your best way to stay safe is to keep talking to me. And third, it wouldn’t hurt for you to avoid using your phone in private (like bedrooms and bathrooms) where it is more tempting to make choices you might regret.


Someday you will have full use of this phone. But today, we will strip it down to a few features, the ones you really need. The next few years will be a little bit like going through driver’s ed, and this is your learner’s permit. You can expect me to ride right by your side, helping you with every new challenge you run into. As you get older, I will allow you to earn more freedom as you prove you can steward your phone well. My goal is for you to have full use of your phone by _____ year. (Perhaps their senior year of high school — we recommend they have their full license sometime before they flee the nest.)


At the end of your life, all you have is your time and attention. Unfortunately, the tech companies know this well, and want you to spend as much time as possible looking at your screen. The only problem is — they don’t know you or care about helping you make each moment count. Life is big, screens are small…and you deserve to live your fullest life. So, don’t be surprised when I occasionally ask if time on your phone is “time well spent?” I promise you, I’ll be asking myself the same question.