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Digital Minimalism for Parents

  • March 15, 2019

One of the more interesting things about being on the road promoting Digital Minimalism is encountering readers and learning how they’re making use of these ideas.

One such group that’s particularly interesting to me is digital minimalist parents. I’m a parent, but the oldest of my three boys is only six, so I haven’t yet directly grappled with the serious issues surrounding kids in an age of smartphones, making me eager to hear from those who are waging this battle now.

As I’ve talked with more of these parents, a consistent reality has emerged:

  • Smartphones and social media are a major problem for adolescents. To ignore it with a “kids these days” shoulder shrug is becoming increasingly unacceptable. (For more on this, see my somewhat infamous interview with GQ where I speculatively compare teenage smartphone use to teenage smoking.) 
  • Any successful attempt to instill in your kids a healthier relationship with technology has to start with modeling this relationship in your own life.

This latter point is one that we parents sometimes don’t want to hear, but it keeps coming up in my conversations: if you carry your phone with you at all times, checking it constantly, it’s difficult to convince your kids not to do the same, no matter how many rules you set or warnings you deliver.

In my book, I give some cases studies of this parental modeling pushed to an extreme:

  • A father named Adam, for example, used his smartphone constantly at home, largely for professional reasons (his business relies on SMS for a lot of internal communication). He began to worry, however, about the example this set for his daughter as she approached adolescence, so he made a radical decision: he got rid of his smartphone.
  • A mom named Laura made a similar decision. She has refused to ever buy a smartphone because quality social interaction with her kid, as well as her family and close friends, are a top priority, and she worried the addictive allure of an iPhone screen would distract her from the moments that mattered most.

As you might expect, these decisions were inconvenient. Adam complained to me at the time about the difficulty of trying to tap out a text message on a 9-digit flip phone keypad. Laura talked about printing out maps before going somewhere new as she doesn’t have an app to navigate her.

But I was also struck by how little Adam and Laura cared about these inconveniences. This makes sense in this context as basically everything parents do on behalf of their kids is inconvenient. I think if you look up “inconvenient” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of a sleep-deprived parent making a school lunch. 

What animated them more was the idea that they were doing something intentional to make their kids’ lives better.

Most digital minimalist parents I’ve talked with recently haven’t gone so far as to give up their smartphones, but they share the same serious interest in reshaping their digital lives — even if it’s a pain — to provide a better model for their kids. 

One interesting strategy I encountered, for example, is the so-called foyer phone method. In the evening, after work, you leave your phone in the foyer by the front door with your keys and wallet. If you need to look something up, you go to the foyer to use the phone. If you’re expecting a call or text message that you need to answer, you put on the ringer, and if it rings, you go to the foyer. If you’re bored during a commercial while watching TV, then you’re just bored.

It seems like a simple hack, but the result is that your interactions with your family become screen-free by default. You also avoid the micro-glances at your device as you go about your household business — glances you think are surreptitious, but that your kids are almost certainly taking note of and internalizing as a model of the phone’s importance. With this method, the smartphone becomes a tool that you deploy for specific uses, not a constant companion.

Another minimalist parenting strategy that caught my attention is making a strong commitment to analog social media — that is, real world social activities, like having friends over on a regular basis, visiting with neighbors, hosting community or religious groups at your house.

This demonstrates to kids through example the deep value of real world relationships, an important message for a generation that has attempted to relocate their entire social existence into the low-friction world of Snapchat likes and text messages. (c.f., Sherry Turkle’s excellent book on this topic).

A few weeks ago, Adam came to one of my book launch events in New York. He brought his daughter. The pride on his face underscored an important point: For most people, the embrace of digital minimalism is about improving the quality of your own life, but for parents, as I’ve been learning, it can be about something much deeper.


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