First Things First: How technology can affect your family’s health

Lauren Hall

Put your phone away while I'm talking to you. No texting while driving. Stop oversharing on social media. Learn to balance technology with other activities. Notifications keep you from being present with your family.

Sounds like the average parent talking to the average teen in 2023.

Except it's not. It represents some of the rules kids believe their parents should follow. (This was back in 2016.)

In 2016, the University of Washington and the University of Michigan studied children ages 10-17. Researchers posed a simple question. What phone rules do you wish your parents followed?

As we explore how technology affects families, we should note what our kids observe about our phone use. The 2016 study found that children's rules for their parents fell into several main categories.

1. Be present. Children feel there should be no technology in certain situations, like when a child is trying to talk to a parent.

2. Moderate use. Parents should use technology in moderation and in balance with other activities.

3. Supervise children. Parents should establish and enforce technology-related rules for their children's own protection.

4. No phone use while driving. Not even at red lights.

5. No hypocrisy. Parents should practice what they preach, like staying off their phones at mealtimes.

6. No oversharing. Parents shouldn't share information online about their children without their permission.

These kids in 2016 sound just like parents today. (More recent studies have reinforced similar findings.) Kids are concerned about their parents' use of technology.

(Is anybody else having a Twilight Zone moment?)

In a way, this shouldn't be surprising. To put this in context, note these key milestones in the evolution of smartphone adoption in the United States.

› 2005: Samsung smartphones debut with Google's Android operating system.

› 2007: The Apple iPhone debuts.

› 2008: The Facebook app becomes available for smartphones. Welcome to the age of mobile social media. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are soon to follow.

› 2010-2016: Smartphone adoption by adults rose from 23% to over 80%.

The early adopters of these expensive smartphones weren't children, and they weren't teens. They were adults being observed by their kids.

According to the 2016 study, these young people grew up competing with a smartphone for their parents' attention. Today, parents complain about competing with phones for their children's attention.

In 2022, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone at home. Over 50% got a phone by age 11. By age 12, they were using at least two social-media apps. The big difference from 2016 is that these aren't fully formed adults. These are children with brains that are still developing -- 11- and 12-year-olds don't have fully matured social skills. Teens are still establishing impulse control. They haven't quite learned how to regulate their emotions. Their sense of self is just beginning to take form.

We've let the genie out of the bottle and are justifiably concerned about what we see.

In 2021, a Pew Research Group study asked if parenting was harder today than it was 20 years ago:

› 66% of parents said parenting was harder. The top reason was technology.

(Actually, seven of the top 12 reasons involved technology.)

› 7% said parenting was easier. Oddly, the top reason was also technology.

(With four of the top seven reasons involving technology.)

How can technology be both? It might depend on the example you set for your kids. Model the behavior you want to see.

Feeling brave? Sit down with your child and give them permission to speak freely. Ask them, "What rules would you give me about my phone use?" That will spark a rich conversation.

Lauren Hall is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at