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Why cellphones and sleepovers are such a bad mix (and what parents can do about it)

(iStock) (Steve Debenport/IStock)

When my daughter was born in 2005, managing cellphones at a sleepover wasn’t even on my parenting radar. Thirteen birthdays later, I agreed to host a slumber party with 13 girls. They would play games, watch movies, eat ice cream and sleep in a giant pile on our living room floor. And cellphones were my main concern.

At 11 p.m., my daughter put out a bright pink basket and asked the 11 girls with phones to pass them over. Three phones appeared. I picked up the basket and walked around to groups of girls, still on their phones, and asked them to please put them in with the others. Five more phones. I put it on the table and made a general request, that anyone still holding a phone put it with the others, and I went to get ready for bed. Ten minutes later, I collected the phones from my daughter.

“There’s nine,” she said. “That’s pretty good, right?”

Great. Somewhere, shoved under pillows or stuffed animals, were two remaining phones. I looked at my daughter’s face and I could see her silently begging me not to make a scene, not to go on a search, not to embarrass her in the middle of her birthday party.

Parenting in the age of technology comes with its own set of challenges, and none is clearer to me, a newly minted parent of young teenagers, than how we regulate and monitor cellphone use. The average age a child gets a cellphone is 10. According to research released by Nielsen in 2017, of the kids who have phones before 13, 45 percent get them between age 10 and 12, and 16 percent have phones when they are 8. By the teenage years, 95 percent of kids have access to a smartphone. All of this translates to more phones at younger ages, which means that phones are the norm in places where they used to be the exception. Places such as elementary and middle school sleepovers.

In the past two years, my daughter has been invited to parties that use phones for scavenger hunts, photos and making movies. But what happens at 2 a.m., when the games are done, and a parent is left with a group of kids, all with relatively unsupervised access to phones?

“What we see with sleepovers is what I would call diminished inhibition that comes with sleep deprivation,” says Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” and the blog Raising Digital Natives. “A kid who makes sensible decisions at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. might not be the kid that makes sensible decisions after hours of junk food, of no sleep, of being kind of worn down by peers.”

Our first experience with this late-night lapse in judgment came two years ago, when my son woke up to a text that said, “We have taken your sister.” Funny to her friends, when sent from her phone in the middle of the night, but scary to my groggy son, who was convinced that his sister had been kidnapped. He calmed down only when we called his sister to show him she was fine. Plot twist: She was asleep, had no idea the text had been sent and felt terrible about it.

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Beyond the sleep deprivation, kids are in a group with no exit at a sleepover, and trying to fit in with their friends.

“Group think might develop over time because you have the kids there for many hours. If a bunch of girls want to do something inappropriate, there might be peer pressure in a more negative direction,” Heitner says.

Internet safety and cyberbullying have become hot topics for parents and tweens, and many parents use hardware or apps to cut off access to the Internet, thinking that will keep kids off adult sites and out of trouble. Limiting access doesn’t curb the trouble caused by phones at sleepovers, though.

“Using someone else’s phone to impersonate them, to send someone texts as them, or to share an embarrassing picture of someone sleeping — which is a situation that you can’t get consent, so clearly you shouldn’t be taking pictures of anyone when they’re sleeping — you just shouldn’t do that,” Heitner says. “It’s upsetting and it’s a big violation.”

Just ask my son.

What’s the best way for parents to manage cellphones during a sleepover? Clearly, putting out a basket to collect them isn’t the most effective strategy, as I learned.

“Parents need to step in and be the frontal lobe, the person who regulates the impulses,” says Danny O’Rourke, a clinical psychologist in Seattle who works with adolescents and the author of the blog Knowing Anxiety. “I like the idea of putting it in the invitation ahead of time so they know they will be asked to hand in their phones, or individually ask kids to turn in their phones. You may be more successful because they know what to expect when you ask for the phone, and they would have to actively disobey a request.”

And what if, like me, you learn that lesson a little bit late? I was staring at my daughter at 11:30 p.m., torn between concern about missing phones hidden overnight. I thought it had worked. But by the following night, I heard stories of texts sent to people who weren’t invited, and of pictures taken of sleeping girls.

Parenting tweens and teens is a balancing act. A child in late elementary or middle school with a phone might look and act like a mini-adult; they might even claim to be one. But they’re kids, and teaching responsible technology use in a group setting has been added to our parenting tasks. Maybe sleepovers are a good time to just let kids be kids, without the pressures of texts and social media, without forcing them to grow up faster and in ways we’d never considered 15 years ago.

“I think most families will be happy that you want to unplug the kids,” Heitner says. “They get all the risks of connectivity as well and how much fun it will be to be in a space to just relate to your friends and talk all night and whisper and tell jokes.”

Beth Swanson is a freelance writer living in North Bend, Wash. Find her on Twitter @write4chocolate.

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