As much as we wish we could, we can only shield our children from what the rest of the world is up to for so long. When you suddenly have teenagers in your home (even though you could swear that you just changed their diapers like five minutes ago), it takes some strategic planning to decide how much freedom and responsibility they are ready to handle. Technology has crept into just about every facet of our lives, and now our kids seem to expect having information and entertainment available at their fingertips at all times. But how do we decide if it should be? At what age do you provide your kids with a cell phone of their own?
Recently, some of the world’s leading tech giants have spoken out about restricting screen time for their own children. Bill Gates didn’t allow his children to have a cell phone until they were 14, and after that time they imposed strict rules, including no phones at the dinner table and a set time in the evenings when phones had to be put away. Steve Jobs told a reporter just three years ago that his children had never played on an iPad before because he and his wife “limit how much technology [their] kids use at home.”
Closer to home, there has even been a group out of Austin that is committing to stick together and wait until their kids are in eighth grade before giving them a cell phone. You can read more about it and sign the pledge yourself here if you are interested. They feel that the social pressures of having a phone can be tremendous, so parents should band together and commit to keeping the issue at bay until at least their kids’ last year of middle school.
As in every struggle of parenting, we know that parents must always weigh the circumstances and maturity level of their individual child just as heavily as all the expert advice. Our team here at ACMB had an honest and open conversation about how we had approached this issue or plan to do so in the future. In an effort to fairly address both sides of the issue, Denise will be sharing why their family provided their children with cell phones at earlier ages and the advantages of doing such, while Katie will be sharing why she intends to wait longer before giving cell phones to her children.
My two ’90s babies were cell phone’s first pancake. Without a map, we
tiptoed blundered through the valley of the shadow of cell towers and digital waves.
Our parenting books had no chapters on kids and phones. We flew by the seat of our pants doing everything wrong and making mistakes for younger parents to learn from. You’re welcome.
In 2005, our girls (14 and 11) got flip phones. We knew 11 is young. If we forgot, the 14-year-old reminded us. It was simple, with no data plans and no internet in the palms of their hands. Texting was young. At three, little brother found joy in the sound phones made splashing and sinking in a pool. Obviously, he waited longer for a phone.
Our 2005 rules were simple: Give your phones to us at night. Limit your calls. No phones in class. And, always call your grandparents. In our family, cell phones were and are a privilege, not a right.
We regularly observed texts and calls. If phones were misused, we took them, allowing their use as needed. We had (and still have for the youngest) the ability to easily turn off and/or limit service. Those flip phones gave us little trouble.
Little brother came of age with the unlimited availability boom, getting his phone around age 11. (Again, it’s young. And, again, the oldest reminded us that she had to wait until 14. Oldest children have a rough life.)
His rite of passage was a smart phone, with access to internet, texting, etc. in his grubby little palm, simply because there was a previously purchased one with a plan. Our other reasons, included:
- He was beginning to stay alone for short periods. His cell gave us a safety net, easing anxiety and building responsibility.
- His best friend got one at the same time. His mom is one of my BFFS. We coordinated our mutual downfall. Everything is easier with a friend, right?
- He often roamed our almost five acres. We didn’t want him being chased by a wild mama sow or using his last breaths to crawl to the house as rattlesnake venom coursed through his veins. Obviously, we wanted to know he’s on his way, so we could unlock the door and whatnot.
- Cell phones are staying. He could learn to navigate the territory with our influence and boundaries.
He’s always shared my Apple ID. I see downloads, internet activity, text messages, etc. I’m not always spying—who has that kind of time? I sporadically skim things, mostly messages about basketball and the sharing of dorky YouTube videos. I overlook most language—if he were talking in a school hallway, I’d never hear it, and I’d have no control. I try to balance giving him space while keeping him safe. This access is all he knows, so it’s not really an invasion of privacy. If he has a problem with it, he can opt out of having a phone. Like that’ll ever happen.
Starting with a smartphone, he had no data plan and limited wifi use. As he showed more responsibility, data plans were added. Now, almost 15, he has full use of his smartphone with smart limits and the shared Apple ID.
Although we’ve had a few bumps in the road, if I had to do it again, I’d do it the same way, maybe even allow a cell phone a little earlier. Our kids had and have many outside activities without smartphones: swimming, riding, basketball, caring for horses, dogs, and more. They have friends they spend time with in real life. The youngest skypes, messages, and works on projects with others using his smartphone and its apps. He’s become quite the graphic editor, too.
There are other reasons I’d do it again:
- Safety. Out and want to come home? Call me. Done early with riding, dance, basketball, swimming, or youth group? Call me. Out with friends or on dates, phones are a safety net for us and them. We have a family agreement. If they or close friends need a ride home, call us or a number of identified trusted adults for an unquestioned ride home. No judging.We voluntarily live with horses, dogs, and chickens on almost five acres. We co-exist with coyotes, wild hog, rattle and coral snakes, and tarantulas larger than your head. (FYI: Tarantulas aren’t dangerous, and OK, maybe they’re only bigger than your hand.) Either way, I like knowing help is a call away. While at swim practice, I answered my phone and talked a teen through safely escaping from between a wild mama sow and her “cute” babies. If you’ve never been stared down or chased by a mama pig, you can’t truly appreciate the severity of this situation.
- Convenience. Cell phone immediacy spoils us. Kids with phones are convenient. Running late? Stuck in line at HEB? (Looking at you, the last of the check-writers.) I call/text, and he knows. A cell calms kids and parents prone to anxiety and worry.
- Togetherness. The siblings are pretty close. They exchange daily texts, Snapchats, and random links. Old enough to remember “reach out and touch someone”? That’s EXACTLY what I’m talking about.
- Data Plans/Internet Benefits. Our oldest kids added data plans in their late teens. When they were to the driving and going-out-with-their-friends age, an app could track their phones. I didn’t hang on their every move, but I appreciated its safety and boundaries. The youngest has more benefits. Don’t call me and ask what time practice is. Check out the family calendar or go to the team’s website. Need to know how to spell a word? Google, my young friend.
In the end, although it took more time, I kept close eyes on their phones. At 16, the oldest kept her cell with her 24/7. Writing this, it dawns on me that I don’t know when I started letting the middle child keep her phone 24 hours a day. God love the middle children. The youngest got 24/7 privileges at 14.
I can still monitor his cell use, but I let go a little more every year. Occasionally, I double check after bedtime, making sure he’s not texting or surfing the web. With swimming, ball, and school, sleep comes easily and late nights around here are few.
I’m not naive. I know there are easily hidden apps within apps. If you’re concerned about that, there are plenty of programs and software for more deeply monitoring phone use. Such things will always exist. We talk about them and keep open lines of communication. By establishing use guidelines early on and communication with our kids and the parents of their friends, we do the best we can.
Right or wrong, we gave our kids cell phones as early as 11, and it worked for us. Monitoring has taken a little more of our time. We’ve had trial and error as we worked together through new technology. We crawl before we run. Mistakes are made, so we live and learn. We’ll stay involved and let go little by little. After all, isn’t that what parenting is all about?
While my kids are still young and don’t have as many activities, it may be easier for me to hold off on the phone conversation. My daughter is finishing up second grade and has asked us multiple times how old she will be when she gets her own phone. I confess that our kids do see both of us, their parents, with phones in our hands frequently, but I am trying to make more of an intentional effort to not have phones out during meals or use them for kid entertainment too often. When my daughter asks about my first cell phone, I happily tell her that I got it when I was 20 and had to pay for it myself. My hope is that we can hold off as long as we can because there seem to be a list of reasons for not giving my kids their own phones too early weighing on my mind lately:
- The cost. It seems like a cheap flip phone is just so 1999, but I have a hard time adding another $50 to our monthly bill when I am highly suspicious that this fancy new phone could get lost or stolen out of a bag in a very short amount of time. My husband is around middle schoolers all day every day, and he can attest that while many kids are responsible with theirs, there are also kids whose phones get taken away, broken, left behind, or stolen from their lockers. I want to be sure that my kids have proven they can take care of expensive things before we splurge on a phone, smart or not.
- The exposure. Sometimes I forget just how crazy it is that I walk around with such a powerful computer with me all the time. I can find ANYTHING on Google. I can search for any image on Instagram and see hundreds of strangers’ photos. I can go on YouTube and watch entire movies or pull up any song. And I don’t think I am ready for my kids to have that same access. I want to have conversations about why there are inappropriate things out there and how to avoid them. I realize that I can’t shelter them forever, but to a hormonal teenager, the urge to seem cool and check out anything that they are curious about will be pretty impossible to ignore when their device is right there at all times. With any smart phone, the natural progression is to also have access to apps, some of which offer lots of interaction with strangers. Even the most seemingly innocent apps tend to include possibilities for conversations, and many teenage users may not be very selective about adding “friends” they don’t know. I may completely trust my own teenager at that time, but I am absolutely not going to trust all the crazies out there on the internet who may try to interact with them.
- The pressures. Part of the reason many parents feel the pressure to get their kids a smart phone is that they come home complaining that they are the “only kid in the entire school” without one. But once they have a phone, do they want to be the only kid without Snapchat? without Instagram? Probably not. And social media can turn into an ugly way to quantify your popularity. If your selfie doesn’t get 50 likes right away, might as well delete it. Forgot to wish your bestie happy birthday with a special collage and all the right hashtags? Get ready for some real life Mean Girls. I remember how awkward and delicate friendships were for me in middle school, and I feel like social media now seems to shine a magnifying glass on all of it. I don’t want my kids to feel that they are chained to these online personas with a need to churn out exciting glimpses of their life for everyone else to consume.
- The parental commitment. Once my kids have smart phones, it is going to be work for us as parents. I can’t say for sure what all the rules and agreements will be, but I know that if I am paying for that phone I am going to know every password and have access to everything on it. There is going to a be a nighttime cutoff, and I will be able to see who they are interacting with. And I would hope that the rules we set in place for our oldest would set the expectation for our youngest. Once we are in it, we are going to be in it for a while. I want to delay the commitment for as long as we can, especially since I haven’t even tackled potty training my youngest yet. I only have so much mom effort to spread around!