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Digital Minimalism for Parents

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.

30 thoughts on “Digital Minimalism for Parents”

  1. In my career as a law enforcement officer, I often hear parents complain about how their teens are being harassed on Facebook or caught up in some other online drama. Many parents have given-in to the ubiquity of FB. They do not even consider the idea of deleting their children’s accounts and treat FB like a necessary staple in their families’ lives. Taking FB away from their teen would be tantamount to abuse or neglect in their mind.

  2. My wife and I already have made the decision that the kids do not get smartphones unless they are employed and paying for the plan themselves. It blows my mind how other parents respond to this like it’s abuse. “How will you track your children or call them at an event?” That or they will just scoff and laugh it off like I will give in. I’ve mentored younger military aged men and taught confirmation classes and I can tell you know preteen or teenager is mature enough for what those things can bring or the legal consequences if abused.

    I’ve seen enough thank you, and I assure them I won’t feel so distraught that my kids will hate me because they can’t snap chat their friends.

    • For the record, I’ve employed exactly that strategy with with all three of my kids. That means that my 20-year-old and 18-year-old both have phones with minimal data plans. And my 13-year-old son doesn’t have a phone … because he can’t afford it.

      I also use a Circle internet filter to block access to social media on phones. (Although I allow unrestricted access on laptops and desktop machines.)

      In retrospect I think I probably shouldn’t have allowed my two older kids the option of purchasing smartphones, but I just didn’t fully appreciate the negative impact of these devices at the time. When and if my youngest decides to buy a phone, I’ll probably limit his options to dumb phones only.

  3. It is not easy.
    In the one high school orientation, the principle gave a talk about limiting screen time while every teacher told us about how they’re online.

    Our kids do not have phones or tablets. All the classes are use Google classroom. Books are online, copies do not go home. There is an assumption you can reach your child at any time.

    It’s nuts.

    • I am experiencing exactly the same thing, only slightly worse.

      My daughter’s school actually uses Facebook Messenger as a means of the teacher to student communication. Sometimes homework is distributed or discussed. Educators do not feel that they are doing the wrong thing, on the contrary, they feel that they are preparing kids for life!

      I have arranged for a laptop in the kitchen so that my daughter’s activity is monitored, but this is plain madness.

      • Facebook messenger?! Good, Lord. In any church volunteer activity that I know off, that’s a huge no-no in general. You are not to have these kids’ contact information let alone talking to them VIA Facebook.

        • I think you may have misunderstood what they said. They use Facebook MESSENGER.
          It’s not public. I am an adult, yes, but no differently, I’ve been a part of a group chat for my class where homework assignments, class updates etc were posted so that everyone is in the loop, and there are no missed assignments.
          Sure, for kids school its absolutely not necessary, but “a no-no” I think you’re being a bit dramatic. Its a group chat thread for educational purpose moderated by a teacher, not an invitation to scroll thru memes and trash talk other kids.

          • It is a huge no-no in church circles. Facebook Messenger is not the tool to use. It opens the door for abuse. Especially if it is one teacher and multiple teenagers. There should always be at least two adults in all communications with minors. It is absurd that a school would be using Facebook Messenger for communication. It just goes to show you that even our teachers are addicted to social media.

  4. What does the alternative world, where technology is a useful tool that children can learn look like? So much of the emphasis is on the social layer of tech, and that seems to be the most toxic part. Cal, I’m assuming that you learned to love computer science and tech in part from the early blogosphere. How can we give kids the opportunity to learn organically, the way I assume you probably did, while avoiding the toxicity of current tech and social media? Its changed so much that its hard to even consider what the alternative looks like.

  5. One of our household rules regarding technology is the prohibition against social media.
    I believe it’s important for children (especially the “tweens”) to know that their parents aren’t the only ones who are concerned about the toxicity of social media. Requiring them to read books like Digital Minimalism helps communicate that mom and dad aren’t just acting curmudgeonly, but intelligently and lovingly.

    Part of my daughter’s homeschool education has been reading articles and books about internet heath and safety. I recently assigned Digital Minimalism for reading class. She’s about halfway through. I’m not sure if she enjoys it as much as I do, but at least she’s learning about something that affects her life daily.

  6. Our family practices digital minimalism. We do not have television or wi-fi. With teenagers. It is a lifestyle choice and the family culture it provides far outweigh the inconveniences. Recently my 16yo came back from a few days with her best friend. She told me that the parents were always on their phones, and there was very little meaningful family interaction. Kids notice.

  7. Apple’s Screen TIme function on its iOS devices in incredible for both kids and parents.

    It has reduced both my and my teenager’s phone use to a sliver of previous use. Since activating it 3 weeks ago I’ve read 3 great books; of course, Digital Minimalism was one of them.

  8. The phone in the foyer idea is something I’ve been doing since reading Deep Work.

    I keep my phone in my backpack on Do Not Disturb but Priority Only, which only rings or chimes from texts from my parents and brother, and a handful of close friends. Who all have kids and busy professional lives and we live in New York, Connecticut, Ohio, and I live in Indiana. So my friends and I have to be ultra-intentional about staying in touch. So I’m not checking it from 5 until about 8pm. Still though, my wife and I have instilled a question if we catch ourselves on our phones when we should be playing with our two-and-a half year-old son. We ask, “What’s on your phone?” Usually the answer is nothing important.

    Trigger instant guilt.

  9. Nearly finished Digital Minimalism so hopefully this hasn’t been mentioned already, but here’s a quick small tip I’d love to share with others:

    Similar to how you should keep junk food invisible (e.g. in high, out of reach, closed cupboards – though ideally absent altogether) and keep healthy food visible (on the table, easily reachable at the front of the fridge) you can try the same with your phone.

    I have a little box on my dresser where I keep my phone, wallet, and keys (the 3 things I need whenever I leave the house) – and I just keep the box closed unless I’m expecting a call or something. Out of sight, out of mind. If you need it, open the box, do your business, and place it back in before closing the box.

    On the other hand, my bookshelf and my desk have books available and easily viewable. Playing with psychological friction like that is powerful.

    Try it out!

  10. I didn’t get a smart phone until a couple of years ago so only had an old Nokia brick when my kids were teens. They actually got mad when I decided to get a smart phone! We did not buy them smart phones they had to get their own which they did when they were sixteen. We however had a rule that of no phones in the bedroom at night time and we switched off the wifi. It did not go down well but I’m glad we did it. My son admits that from when he got his phone he stopped reading for two years. Fortunately he has since re-found his joy of books. My daughter has been a total screen addict but has recently deleted some of her social media accounts so I hold out hope.

  11. I leave my phone on the charger in my office on DND. I check it a couple times a day, never after work.

    I find myself unhappy on and around social media.

    None of my kids have smart phones. All their friends do. I feel like a horrible parent. But then again, my kids aren’t messed up inside.

  12. My wife and I only have flip phones. We have a PC and she has an ipod. I do have a tablet that belongs to my employer that I use for most of my surfing. We dont do auto pay online and have no TV.

    We have chickens and Turkeys, even a few pigs and plan as many out of the home events. Our children are 2 and 4 so we are making habits now.

  13. Nice idea about phones in the foyer. We homeschool our 5 sons, so we need some rules. It’s too easy to let screens be our focus. Be it phones, tablets, or video games. One rule is the kids don’t get their own phone unless they have a job and pay for it. Also, no kid in my house gets a social media account. Especially Facebook. Side note: one part of ending Facebook’s ubiquity is to stop the next generation from getting on it themsleves. Let Facebook “age out.” Because, frankly, the generation already on it is hooked and in no hurry to delete. Even I’ve deleted yet returned. Hardly use it though. Facebook for sure is not on my phone!

  14. Hi Cal,

    New here. Just read through your new book and I love the philosophy and practical solutions to restructuring our digital lives. Really good stuff. I’m left wondering one thing: what to do when your friends & family are constantly using their digital devices during analog activities with you..? I have already in a sense ‘decluttered’ my life of friends who are not great people to be around, but am left with close friends and even some family who resort to the phone scrolls during lunch, or the snapchats/instagrams during a walk on the boardwalk. I can’t stand it, but I don’t really know what options I have. Is it my place to tell them to put their phone away? Would appreciate some insight from anybody! Thanks!

    • Set an intention with your friends when gathering. Recently I hosted a summer camp out and asked for no smart phones, everyone complied and were happy about it.

  15. Just finished the book and started the 30 day challenge even before ending my reading. What to do when you crumble and check quickly social media during that period? I was eager about my happy birthday wishes this week when I visited my page at facebook quickly from a friend’s phone to see who wroted me (didint log in, didnt hit “Like”). What is the wise thing to do besides improving my lesiure activities? Maybe adding a day or two to the 30 day period? Starting again? Im sad and dissapointed with me for not sticking to it completely. Greetings from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

  16. Does anyone else feel even worse about themselves after reading and listening (and agreeing!) with Cal, and then going on Instagram to promote your work life — creating, engaging, hashtagging, mentioning…it’s an infinite rabbit hole!

    How do you reconcile growing your business/brand with digital minimalism?

    I love this concept, especially as a parent to 3 kids (6,4 and 1), but in today’s world, how can you promote your online business/brand/podcast/blog, without being on Instagram, twitter, FB, etc?

    I had never been on social media until last year when my sister and I started an online reading company, teaching kids how to read — but we’re using Instagram to promote the business….and it’s driving me batty 🙂

    It’s not for personal use, but what’s really the difference?…your time is your time.

    Appreciate your insights and empathy!

  17. Cal, in “Deep Work – Rule #2 Embrace Boredom” you quote Adam Marlin as saying,

    “but it wasn’t some fancy school that pushed their intellect higher; it became clear it was instead their daily study that started as early as the fifth grade.”

    Do you have any recommendations for parents on helping their kids start “deep work” in their own lives? Would you apply the same steps as in your book? As a home-schooling parent, I am especially interested in how I can start working with my kids now, to help them embrace these “deep work” habits as young as possible.

    Sounds like a whole new book (haha), but possibly you could address this in a future blog post?

    Thank you!

  18. I would like my tween to read a book like this one to help manage the growing digital world. Can anyone recommend an age appropriate title?

  19. Hello Cal,

    Scholar, recent mom of a 4 months-old girl, and firmly opposed to the use of technologies for kids since 10 years ago. I love your books and how beautifully you put in text what I have been clumsily predicating for years.

    Here is an INTERESTING piece of information FOR YOU: In SWEDEN, THE SCHOOL PLAN IMPOSES PRE-SCHOOL KIDS (from age 1) THE USE OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES in the classroom. The underlying logic of what they call “Digital competence plan” is that kids develop competence in the use of new technologies (using screens, basically, for things that they could learn in other ways) from an early age in school so that the “burden” of teaching how to interact with these technologies is not on the parents’ shoulders. Since it is established by Skolverket (the school ministry), ALL PRE-SCHOOLS ARE OBLIGED TO USE TECHNOLOGIES AND SCREENS IN THE CLASSROOM, even if their pedagogic philosophy opposes this. The same logic applies to schools. Moreover, since Sweden is one of the few countries in the world where HOME-SCHOOLING IS FORBIDDEN, de facto, kids in Sweden are legally imposed to use screens from an early age, regardless of the opposition of their parents and the recommendations of experts (World Health Organization, for instance).

    What do YOU THINK about this? I am open to being contacted if you want to know more about this.



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