A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

I spent my career in technology. I wasn't prepared for its effect on my kids.

The Gates family stands for a family portrait after hiking at the Grand Canyon
When my youngest child was born in 2002, the flip phone was still the coolest piece of tech you could get. Now I’m told that all three of my children are part of what demographers are calling iGen.

I spent my career at Microsoft trying to imagine what technology could do, and still I wasn’t prepared for smartphones and social media. Like many parents with children my kids’ age, I didn’t understand how they would transform the way my kids grew up — and the way I wanted to parent. I’m still trying to catch up.

The pace of change is what amazes me the most. The challenges my younger daughter will be facing when she starts high school in the fall are light-years away from what my elder daughter, who’s now in college, experienced in 2010. My younger daughter’s friends live a lot of their lives through filters on Instagram and Snapchat, two apps that didn’t even exist when my elder daughter was dipping a toe in social media.
I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets
But I am optimistic about what smartphones and social media can do for people. I am thrilled to see kids learning on smartphones, doctors using apps to diagnose diseases and marginalized groups such as gay and lesbian students finding support they never had before through social networks.

Still, as a mother who wants to make sure her children are safe and happy, I worry. And I think back to how I might have done things differently. Parents should decide for themselves what works for their family, but I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets. Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control. It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it.
Kids staring at their phones while standing in line for a movie
Getty Images
For other parents trying to decide how to do their job in a way that feels right despite the bewildering array of changes brought on by smartphones and social media, I want to share some of the resources that have helped me and my friends. Hopefully, these tips can spark conversation and help parents become resources for each other.
Learn about the issue

This month, the Atlantic ran a long story called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The headline is a little dire, but then again, so is what’s reported in the article. It makes a strong case linking smartphones and social media to emotional distress. For example, eighth-graders who use social media more than 10 hours a week are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than peers who use it less. A lot of the same issues are raised in the documentary Screenagers, whose producers encourage community groups to host screenings. Many parents have told me they like the film because it provides plenty of practical tips.
Eighth-graders who use social media more than 10 hours a week are 56% more likely to say they're unhappy.

One of my favorite things you can do is plan a “device-free dinner.” It’s not complicated. It’s exactly what it says: an hour around a table without anything that has an on or off switch. Common Sense Media has provided great resources and is turning this simple concept into a movement. We don’t allow cellphones at the dinner table, and in my experience, they’re right when they promise “amazing conversation.”
Have tough conversations

One of the things that’s likely to come up in conversation with your kids is the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.” The hype may have subsided a little bit since the beginning of the summer, but it’s still a hot topic. Every parent has to decide for themselves whether they will let their children watch and, if so, under what conditions. Here and here are some excellent resources from the Jed Foundation to help you make these decisions and talk with your kids about the show, suicide, and what to do if they need help. And I always make sure to tell people about Crisis Text Line, an amazing crisis counseling service that provides free, 24/7 support and resources via text message.
Advocate for your kids

With my oldest daughter in college and my son entering his last year of high school, I’ve started thinking about how smartphones and social media change the dynamics of college campuses. Many colleges simply don’t have the resources available to cope with the mental health needs of their students. Read this article to find out more so that you can make sure your kids have the support they need.
Make a plan

Lastly, I highly encourage you to try out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan. This site walks you step-by-step through a process of being intentional about how your family consumes media. The great thing is that it’s not one size fits all. It helps you build a unique plan for your family.
The Internet is a wonderful thing. It gives kids the freedom to move around in a big world, to experiment, to connect with others. As a parent, though, I know that I am responsible for making sure that my kids are ready for all that freedom — and that they know how to keep themselves safe. Here’s to staying on top of all the changes social media is bringing to our kids’ lives, so that we can continue to guide and support them in this fast-changing world.