In a few short months, my oldest daughter will graduate from elementary school and become a middle schooler. (Hold me.) In addition to all the perennial challenges of the junior high years—hormones, mean girls, a larger school, kids who party—we must figure out how to navigate social media and smart phones.
For the first time in my parenting, I cannot look to my parents’ model or that of my wise friends with older kids. Even five years ago, smart phones were far less ubiquitous than they are today. My cabinet cannot help me here because when their daughters were in middle school, flip phones were socially acceptable. Snapchat hadn’t been invented. Today, 50% of kids have smart phones in 6th grade and 90% have them by 8th grade.
We hope to delay giving our daughter a smart phone for as long as we can. Although we are sensitive to the social costs of that, we are more concerned about the myriad temptations and dangers that come with carrying the internet in your pocket. We want to prolong her childhood as long as we can, and limiting her time on the internet seems crucial.
As I mulled over this looming challenge, I decided it would be wise to talk with the moms of my daughter’s elementary classmates. Perhaps we could come up with a joint policy to withhold smart phones until a certain age. Maybe we could become a merry band of mean moms together, so that none of our daughters would be the only one without a smart phone next year.
So, I sent an email to the moms of every girl in my daughter’s class, asking if any of them were interested in getting together to discuss smart phones, social media, and middle school. Within hours, they had all replied, eager to come together to discuss concerns and ideas. More than I would have guessed were planning to take a conservative path. “My daughter will not have a smart phone until high school, if even then,” more than one said.
We scheduled a Friday night Moms’ Night Out a month later. One of my friends volunteered to host, and we brought wine and snacks. We sent my friend’s daughter away for the evening, so that there were no listening ears nearby. It was a very fun evening, full of laughter and like-mindednes. The group included every social group in the elementary class.
On the counsel of the moms with older children who were there, we opted not to make a hard and fast policy on withholding smart phones until a certain age. They advised that flexibility would be helpful. Although it is easy to find lists of best practices for family internet use online, I found it helpful to hear from people whose families I know and whose kids attend the same schools as mine. These friends further suggested the following:
- Do all you can to keep the lines of communication open with your child. The relationship you have built in their earlier years will serve you well when they are teenagers.
- When your child starts middle school, buy them a talk and text phone so that they can communicate with you. Tell them that if they want to upgrade it, they need to pay for the new device themselves. If they earn the money, let them upgrade first to an iPod Touch because it requires wi-fi and thus does not work everywhere. This automatically limits the child’s online time.
- When you do finally let your child have a smart phone, have a time of day that they are routinely expected to turn it off and give it to you, such as 8 PM. Otherwise, they may stay up, receiving texts at all hours. This pattern will help them get in the habit of unplugging at a reasonable hour every day…a habit we all need to cultivate.
- Consider only letting your child use their smart phone in the living room when at home. Like keeping the family computer in a visible place, this will naturally curb the kinds of sites the child is visiting and the choices they are making on those sites. One of the moms with a seventh grader explained to her son that if he felt embarrassed by something on his phone in the living room, that was a good indication that what he was doing/seeing was not appropriate.
- All social media platforms require you to be 13 before signing up. While many kids lie about their ages to join these sites as soon as they get smart phones, allowing your kids to do this sets a bad precedent. If the first thing they do online is lie, where is that going to lead? Nowhere good.
- You do not need to check your kids’ phones every day. Occasional spot checks are effective and far less exhausting. Any bad habits or behaviors your child is developing will be apparent even if you only check their phone once in a while.
Perhaps the most important thing that came out of our evening together was that we opened the lines of communication. Each mom said emphatically that if anyone became aware of her daughter doing something dangerous, inappropriate, or mean online that she wanted to hear about it. We made an agreement that we would communicate with each other. As I’ve said before, there is no safer plan than one where there are moms paying attention and talking to each other. This is true on the playground, and it is true on the internet.
©Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2017.