Being a Digital Age Role Model

Being a Role Model in the Digital Age

Modeling good habits is a critical part of parenting. It’s essential because our behavior is so often viewed as unspoken permission for our children to act the same way. When we calmly deal with our frustrations in a slow-moving supermarket line, our children may learn the benefits of patience. On the flipside, if we binge on junk food whenever we’re sad or anxious, our teens will likely do it, too. This is not only an established pattern when it comes to what we eat and how we manage our emotions. It’s also the case with our digital lives — how much time we spend texting, on the computer, watching videos, and playing games on our smartphones.

Lessons are Essential

Teaching by example can save your child’s life. Consider how many minutes every day you spend on your cell phone. Nearly half of all smartphone owners admit their device is something “they couldn’t live without.” Has that time ever spilled over into your car, while you’re driving, even for what seems like the quickest of glances? The temptation to check messages and social media feeds is real and dangerous. Drivers are 23 times more likely to crash while texting.

The consequences of distracted driving are greater for inexperienced drivers. Adolescents who text while driving are more likely to drift from the centerline or enter an intersection at a red or yellow light. The good news is that parents have the capacity to decrease this risky behavior simply by not giving into the same urges while they’re driving. This is because inexperienced drivers tend to imitate their parents’ driving style, particularly as they begin setting out without adult supervision.  

Modeling safe behavior is necessary to raise children who will use their devices appropriately.  In her book, Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age, Yalda Uhls explains, “Every adult who wants to help children navigate the digital world should consider carefully his own media behavior.”

Modeling safe behavior is necessary to raise children who will use their devices appropriately.

A Very Important Tool

Being a role model in the digital age extends well beyond how we engage with technology behind the wheel. With many individuals spending more than 10 hours on screens every day, it’s important parents set a positive example at other times as well. Ana Homayoun, author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, says the most helpful strategy for parents and other caregivers is being mindful of how much time family members are actually using technology.

“The best way of being a role model is building awareness of the actual amount of time we all spend with our screens every day,” Homayoun says. “We often engage with devices without even thinking about it. Most of us underestimate the number of minutes this constant checking of our phones takes.” And all this screen time is time taken away from important and meaningful relationships in real-life.

Effective Methods for Tracking Digital Use

One easy way is checking the usage data on your and your teen’s phone. On an iPhone, go to Settings and scroll down to Battery. You’ll be able to see the percentage of time spent emailing, texting, or using social media in the last week or last 24-hours. The precise number of minutes and hours can also be found by tapping the Clock icon. I was shocked to learn that in the past seven days I spent 18% of my time texting, which equated to roughly five hours. Sure, much of that back and forth was spent communicating with people for work and my two teenagers and husband, but still. 300 minutes is a lot of time to spend every week tapping out messages.

“If we identify our habits, we become aware of them,” Homayoun argues. “That’s the only moment when we can change our behavior.”

It takes just a few seconds to find tracking instructions for other phones online. For example, these are the guidelines Samsung offers Galaxy users. I discovered them by typing the words “Samsung,” “Galaxy,” and “data usage” into a search engine. You can do the same for virtually any device.

Additionally, many phone bills now include this breakdown of usage by data, texting and phone use. Consider reviewing them a bit more carefully and you may be surprised to learn about the habits of smartphone users in your family.

Below are four apps Homayoun recommends for helping parents and teens become more aware of, and control, online use. The tools that follow can also boost productivity.

Manage Time

  • Moment automatically tracks how much you use your iPhone and iPad every day. It allows you to set daily limits.
  • Forest sets a timer to encourage phone-free time. The app grows a digital tree while you work. If you leave the app for any reason during the period of time you’ve selected, your cute virtual tree will die.

Increase Productivity

Screen Time: Are you controlling your teen’s phone usage effectively?
Take this quiz to find out how well you’re doing.

Look for Signs of Overuse

Many well-meaning experts warn families that parents and teens are addicted to their phones. But according to Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, using the term “addiction” is not the best way to consider this challenge. “To combat addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance. But we are not going to ‘get rid’ of the Internet,” she writes in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Instead, our goal is to learn to manage it so it contributes to rather than dominates our lives.

If you feel like your teen is spending too much time in front of the screen, you may want to look for flags if you’re concerned about online addiction. Ana Homayoun suggests looking for these signs:

  • Has your teen’s mood changed recently? Are they becoming more moody or frustrated when they don’t have access to the phone?
  • Is your teen avoiding social interactions and instead spending time on the phone?
  • Is the phone affecting your teen’s sleep or daily routine?

If you notice one or more of these signs, now is the time to begin a discussion with your teen and come up with a phone use action plan together.

Live Effectively (With Technology)

We can find ways to live more effectively with technology. One of the most successful strategies involves creating what Turkle calls “sacred spaces for conversation.” This means not bringing phones to the dinner table and possibly banning their use in the car. Both create the kind of space needed for meaningful conversation, looking out the window, or simply enjoying some quiet. “The mere presence of a phone signals that your attention is divided, even if you don’t intend it to be,” Turkle warns.

Digital lifestyle expert Carley Knobloch embraces a tech etiquette policy for her family. “If my kids and I are engaged in conversation and a text or email seems urgent, we verbally excuse ourselves from whatever we’re doing. There’s no sudden wandering away. We try to say something like, ‘Sorry, I have to respond to this.’ This is how we show the people we love tenderness and respect.”

Dr. Ken Ginsburg, co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication and author of Raising Kids to Thrive, says, “Living with technology means more than how we use it. It means ensuring that we are also making the most of human eye-to-eye contact and real in-person communication. This matters as we walk on the streets in our communities, ride elevators with our colleagues at work, and it matters most of all in our homes. Our children need our full presence, and through gaining it, will learn to fully connect to others.”

Parents can lead the way to shaping this kind of healthful balance. We are our children’s best teachers.

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

Read more articles by this author

Get our weekly newsletter for practical tips to strengthen family connections.