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Family Talk: Limiting cellphone use could spur family conversations

Even at young ages, many children are interested in cellphones and other technology. Should there be limits to their use? [Thinkstock]
Even at young ages, many children are interested in cellphones and other technology. Should there be limits to their use? [Thinkstock]

I’m so old I remember a world before cellphones. A world where, if you were away from home and needed to make a call, you used an ancient invention called the “pay phone.” 

I’m so old that when I was a kid, I used to check the coin return on pay phones as I passed by, hoping I might find a forgotten dime.

Being this old, it’s understandable that I harbor some antiquated opinions about kids and cellphones. But would you expect my opinions also would be held by Bill Gates, the godfather of technology? Here’s a quick and surprising summary of how Bill and Melinda Gates handled cellphones with their own kids:

•No cellphones until the kids were 14 years old.

•A set time each evening after which there was no screen time.

•No cellphones allowed during family meals.

Gates says his kids complained that “everyone has a cellphone,” but he and Melinda held to the age 14 rule. He also cited evidence that the blue light emitted from the screens of electronic devices interferes with sleep as the reason for the cellphone curfew. And dinner? Apparently, the Gates value family discussion and interaction over hyper connectivity.

And Gates isn’t alone. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, said in 2014 that his kids hadn’t used an iPad (made by Apple) because “we limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Could Gates and Jobs be parent tech models, as well as tech moguls?

If you’re a parent and you’re not struggling with questions about your child’s use of cellphones and social media, you’re not paying enough attention. In the next few weeks, I’m going to try to tackle some of these questions and provide answers that are practical and realistic.

To stay informed, parents should find reliable information about their children’s use of cellphones and social media. One good source is Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org), which defines itself as “the leading independent nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology. We empower parents, teachers, and policymakers by providing unbiased information, trusted advice, and innovative tools to help them harness the power of media and technology as a positive force in all kids’ lives.”

The site has hundreds of helpful articles and reviews, as well as guidance for parents seeking to set realistic limits.

One common sense article on the site, written by Caroline Knorr, succinctly sets forth “three places families should make phone free.”

•The dinner table

•The bedroom

•The car

Bill Gates must have taken Knorr’s advice. The car was an interesting and surprising inclusion. Knorr says allowing family members to use cellphones in the car disrupts natural conversations that might occur between parent and child during the ride. Good point.

So parents: Be like Bill Gates. Set limits on your kids’ cellphones. It might sound impossible to impose such restrictions, but the challenge is well worth the effort. More conversation at dinner and in the car and a child who sleeps better at night will be just part of the reward. 

More in my next column ...

Jim Priest

Jim Priest is the CEO of Sunbeam Family Services, a 108-year-old nonprofit that provides a range of social services to support Oklahoma's most vulnerable people, including early childhood education, counseling, foster care and senior services. Jim... Read more ›

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