In last week’s post, I discussed guidelines for deciding if your teen is ready for a smartphone. While as a rule of thumb, experts recommend waiting until your teen is at least 14 years old before giving them a smartphone of their own, many teens with ADHD may not have the maturity or social skills needed until they are well into high school (or beyond). With that in mind, if you think you have a teen with ADHD who is ready for a smartphone, then plan carefully before handing over the phone.
Create Ground Rules. The organization Wait Until 8th, which advocates for healthy and safe smartphone use, recommends laying out ground rules in three categories: how to use a phone 1) safely, (2) appropriately, and (3) moderately. The ground rules recommended by Wait Until 8th are excellent but are too detailed for most kids with ADHD to keep in mind. I recommend focusing on the three rules in each category that are most important for your family.
Choosing a single rule that covers multiple topics and situations can help limit the number of rules needed. For example, the rule “I will not text or post anything that I would not say to my grandmother/father/mother/pastor/rabbi,” covers many smaller, more specific rules that can be left off the list.
Post the Ground Rules in Your Home. Having a conversation about the ground rules is not enough for teens with ADHD. Also, post them in your house in a location that can be seen by everyone. Here they will serve as a subtle reminder for your teen and will be easy to reference if questions or conflicts come up around your teen’s smartphone use.
Plan Consequences to Use if Rules are Broken. If your teen violates one of the ground rules, then put a consequence in place immediately. If a rule-break does not lead to unsafe behavior, then you can consider planning to give your teen one warning before issuing the consequence. Just remember to let your teen know in advance which rules will not come with a warning and will lead straight to a consequence. If your teen breaks the rule again after a warning, then be consistent about using consequences. Taking away the phone for a period of time, around one or two days, is usually an appropriate consequence.
Tell Your Teen that You Will Be Monitoring their Phone. Install parental monitoring software on your teen’s phone and let them know that you will be monitoring their phone regularly. Also, create profiles on any social media sites used by your teen, and make it a rule that your child must add you as a friend or contact on these sites so you can monitor their social media activity. This may feel like an invasion of their privacy, but in fact, it’s necessary to make sure your teen is using social media safely.
Talk about ADHD and Smartphones. Having ADHD makes it harder to use smartphones safely, appropriately, and moderately. Struggles with attention make it harder for them to put the phone down when they need to, and their impulsive tendencies may make them more likely to do or share something they will regret later. Talk to your teen about these challenges to help increase their own awareness. If you think your teen will not be receptive to having this conversation with you, then ask a school counselor, pediatrician, psychologist, or other professional to talk with your teen.
Plan a Trial Period. Institute a 30-day trial period. During this period, closely monitor their phone activity using parental monitoring apps on the phone. Make sure they are following all of the ground rules. Before the trial period starts, let your teen know specifically what would result in losing their phone privileges. For example, breaking three ground rules (or the same ground rule three times) during the trial period may result in your teen losing their phone indefinitely.
Education, consistent monitoring, and consistent consequences are essential when it comes to helping your teen use their smartphone in a healthy way. While it will take extra effort on your part, like all other aspects of parenting kids and teens with ADHD, this effort will pay off and will make life easier for everyone in the long run.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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