Emerging Advice: Smart Phones and Middle Schoolers

Middle school can be a brutal time socially for all the reasons we remember: cliques and social conformity. The cool kids and the not cool ones. Bullies. The only thing worse than middle school as it was: the addition of Instagram and Snapchat, which when used by middle schoolers “nothing more than an exclusionary tools” according to one mom. Nothing says, “We like you, but not that much,” like a photo of all your BFF’s without you, followed by lots of emojis!


At this stage, every parent asks “How am I going to deal with the technology issue?” Our kids will never experience life without devices and there is no going back. We can accept this, but that doesn’t mean we won’t ask this question a thousand times. How we answer the technology question now will influence who they become.Will they be adults who look up and out, able to face life and deal with it as it happens? Or will they constantly look down, seeking entertainment and distraction?

Teaching Middle Schoolers the “Why” of Tech Use

For the record I’m not anti-tech, and my kids enjoy television.Though I’m a hippie at heart, I’m no Luddite. (I live in suburban New Jersey!) I love my phone and the access it gives me.

But I notice a difference between being on my phone and in it. When I’m on my phone, I’m acting intentionally. I am looking something up, or I’m sharing for a reason. When I’m in my phone, I am escaping, usually because I am bored or uncomfortable.

That’s when my neck is all craned forward and a lot of scrolling takes place

I was raised without a screen. I’m also a grownup. That means I’ve learned that there is a difference in conscious and unconscious behavior. Middle schoolers will not be aware of this difference in motivations. But we can teach them how.

When it comes time to set tech boundaries with middle schoolers, start by introducing the idea of  “understanding their why.”  Why are they on their phones? What are they feeling while they use their devices? The hope is that they understand their motivations for their tech use, which will impact their behavior. 

Without being taught how, middle schoolers will not have a conscious relationship to technology.  They probably don’t know if they are posting a pic because they want to, or if it’s to gain approval from their peers. They don’t know if what they are viewing scares or uplifts them. You can help them out by introducing them to this idea of being on  versus  in  their phones with hopes that by doing so, they become more engaged with their media and hopefully, more discerning.

These days, a lot of life happens with our heads facing down, not out.

“Understanding their why” is a great answer to the tech question. If middle schoolers get their why, they can become engaged consumers of information. This helps them think more critically and solve problems more readily.

But it’s not enough. The same expert also suggests giving kids a digital detox as a way to engage in real life. I think this is healthy and relevant for all of us, but especially for kids and teens for two reasons: Being online for 5-7 hours is normal for them and kids aren’t great decision-makers.

Digital detox is an adult’s job. We must create the opportunities for our kids to be in the moment. Without the pull of technology, we can practice looking people in the eyes, observing their body language, and making conversation. When I meet a teen who can do this easily, I am way too delighted and surprised. I have to resist the urge to congratulate him or her for being human.

Initially, this will be more complex than it sounds. That’s because it falls to us, the grownups, to create opportunities where everyone is present and without their phones. Expect resistance here and for good reason: phones are like an appendage. You are forcing them to cut it off for a day.

But without you leading the effort, it just won’t happen.

As parents, we have to create these opportunities because in the modern world, they will not happen organically. Teaching middle schoolers  to understand their why and what motivates them is teaching them to approach life from a deliberate and empowered place. We don’t want their self-worth to be influenced by every “like” and comment. We want them to solve real-life problems. This means teaching them to face out, not down when walking through the world.

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