Parenting and Phones, an Empowering Approach

DImage; Jiyoung kim/CC BY-SA 4.0 (modified); Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

I am the father of a 14 year old, and it is wild. We have our good days and our bad ones, and the lockdown was hard for all of us, but I learn new stuff from my kid every single day.

I’ve been writing about the intersection of parenting and my kid’s digital life since she was two years old, and from the start, I’ve been clear on one thing: it’s impossible to completely control how my kid uses digital tech, and so the best I can hope for is to teach her to be as safe as possible, and to cultivate a trusting relationship with her so that when (not if) she gets in over her head, she’ll come to me so I can help her figure it out.

As expected, that’s only gotten harder as she’s grown up. Not only is digital tech growing more central to her life every year (especially, but not solely, because of the pandemic), but it’s also getting harder for anyone to use safely.

As websites have disappeared into apps, tools like ad-blockers, spam filters and other add-ons have faded into the background, leaving us at the mercy of Google and Apple’s mobile app-store standards.

I still work hard with my kid on being safe(r) online, but more than anything, I’m committed to ensuring that we have a respectful, mutually trusting relationship when it comes to her digital life, so that when she gets into trouble, she comes to me.

The cover of the MIT Press edition of Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing)

A Wired excerpt from a new book called Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing) gave me some fantastic new tactics to try on that score. Authors Emily Weinstein and Carrie James (both affiliated with the Harvard Graduate School of Education) set out a playbook for empowering kids to use digital tech well, rather than taking away their power so that they can’t get into trouble.

Weinstein and James conducted extensive research with teens, parents and teachers, and the tactics they suggest are all drawn from real-world successes.

The authors start with tools to build personal agency (“the things an individual can do to exert influence over situations”):

  • “curating their social media feeds toward well-being by unfollowing or muting accounts that make them feel bad”
  • “setting their own screen time limits or intentionally putting their phones out of reach when they want to focus on studying”
  • “strategically segment their online audiences to empower more intentional sharing to particular groups”

To get there, they propose “modeling intentional digital habits” (e.g., ‘“’I need to turn off my notifications for a bit, I’m feeling so distracted by my phone today’)” and they talk about the useful concept of recognizing that we make bad decisions “at ten o’clock on a Saturday night.” The idea is to teach kids to recognize when they should park an online conversation because their judgment is at an low ebb, and come back to it later.

Next, they discuss collective agency (“when people provide mutual support and work together to secure what they cannot accomplish on their own”):

  • “teens form pacts to vet photos of each other before tagging and posting”
  • “when teen girls share intel about guys known to leak girls’ nudes so that they can be on alert and avoid them”
  • “teens who create online study spaces over Discord or Zoom to help each other maintain focus while keeping other digital distractions in check”
  • “when friends decide to keep phones in an untouched stack during dinners together”
  • “when they use location-sharing as part of a group effort to keep friends safe during a night out”

Finally, they talk about proxy agency (a “mode of agency acknowledges that on their own — and even when they collaborate with others — teens only have so much control over their circumstances”).

For parents, teachers and other authority figures engaged in proxy agency, they ask us to consider “how do our decisions support or compromise young people’s agency and well-being? Where, when, and how should we intervene and disrupt existing devices, apps, norms, policies, and laws? How can we design for more agency? And how can we center considerations about differential susceptibility and equity when we do so?”

Good stuff.

Great stuff.

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).