Digital Driver’s Ed for Your Smartphone Driver

Wednesday, 8 January, 2020

Krista Boan

For most of us, the first time we got behind the wheel is a vivid memory. Whether it was in a parking lot or a quiet side street, it’s easy to remember both where it happened and who we were with. The one thing we all had in common? We weren’t alone—there was a mentor sitting next to us, painstakingly guiding us through a process where we were gradually given more responsibility. This generous adult logged many hours riding in the passenger seat, helping us learn and grow as we encountered road hazards, detours and reckless drivers who swerved outside the yellow lines. For some mentors more than others, this was exhausting work—but it was worth it. The result? Confident, responsible drivers who could navigate the roads as safely as possible. 

At START, we recommend that parents take a similar approach when helping kids navigate social media and smartphones. We call this process “Ride. Practice. Drive.” It’s a simple but powerful tool you can pull out the next time your child or teen asks for a new app or device. Here’s how it works.

First, with any new digital experience, your kid starts by buckling up for a backseat ride. We all did this for years watching our parents drive—learning the landmarks, what to do at red, yellow and green lights, the meaning of the numbers on a speed limit sign…and the color of police sirens when you ignore it. Similarly, our kids are learning about tech use from birth. They see what captures our attention and in what situations we step away from the phone or are absorbed in it. In the “riding backseat” stage, it’s important to establish your family values and do your best to model the healthy tech habits you want your child to have one day.  

When it comes time to let your kids get behind the wheel and practice, get ready to log many hours in the passenger seat, doing the thrilling but exhausting work of coaching your student driver through whatever potholes and fender-benders come their way. In this learner’s permit phase, be sure to start with strong limits and release them slowly. What does this look like digitally? 

Before you jump into the world of smartphones, consider starting with a device that is simple and limited—like a Gabb Wireless phone

No internet. No games. No social media. No picture messages. 

This will allow your children to practice texting with a handful of loved ones before advancing on to group texting, which can be like an onion—layer after layer of potential challenges. As they prove that they have mastered one digital driving skill, trust them to try out an even harder one. 

Eventually, you will feel confident that they are ready to try out a smartphone, stripped down to limit its features. But before you hand over the keys, take a moment 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. Knowledge is power, so we recommend making a real effort to research and understand the incredible dangers that are out there! (Check out some recommended articles below.)

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. 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 way to bond with your child, we’ve gotcha covered! Here are five topics to talk about:

1. This phone does not belong to you; it belongs to me, your parent.

2. Device-free zones

3. The Internet is not looking out for your well-being, but I am.

4. The next few years will be a little bit like going through driver’s ed, and this is your learner’s permit.

5. Is time on your phone time well spent?

As they begin “driving” their smartphone, be sure to stay in the passenger seat and keep on coaching! It will take a lot of time and energy to mentor your smartphone driver through the learner’s permit phase, but take heart! Your time in the passenger seat won’t last forever. At some point in your learner’s permit phase, you’ll begin to feel that you can trust your child to drive in a safe, savvy way —making smart, healthy choices as they navigate their own app or device use. At this point, it’s okay to give them a little space and let them merge into traffic. Your goal is to move into your role as “Roadside Assistance”—a tried and true guide they can call for help. 

Just remember, you are heading somewhere with this training process. At some point, before they flee the nest, they should be driving their smartphones independently. Sure they will still bump curbs or get in accidents, but hopefully, they can handle most unhealthy situations on their own—maybe with an occasional call home for advice.

Click here print out a phone contract that you and your child each initial! 

Check out these links and articles to help educate yourself about the dangers of sharing information online:

We Start Now’s Start Rules of Thumb

Medium’s I’m a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old Girl. Here’s What I Learned.

Dallas Morning New’s When 6th graders can access rape porn on their smartphones, school becomes toxic