A: Every family has the right to create the rules they feel are appropriate for their specific needs. If you feel confused about what you should or shouldn’t be doing, trust me, you are not alone. There is nothing more bewildering than trying to figure out when to give your child a smartphone. When you hand your child one, you are handing them the world of the Internet — the good, the bad and the ugly. And when you begin to think of all the information and images available on the Internet, it is easy to fall into a fear-driven, anxious spinout.
It doesn’t help that doctors and tech experts cannot seem to agree on when children should use smartphones, but practically everyone agrees on this: The younger the child, the fewer devices they should have, and the less time they should spend on the devices. The young brain is too malleable, too immature and too easily addicted to the stimuli that tech provides, and the longer we can hold off smartphones, the more time we give the brain to grow and mature.
Does this mean your ninth-grader isn’t ready? I don’t know, but there is something telling about your letter: You are only writing about yourself and your perspective. I don’t know anything about your daughter, save for her normal complaints: “But Mom! Everybody has one except me!” I don’t know whether she’s a good student who has kind friends and is responsible, or whether she struggles in school and isn’t trustworthy (which isn’t a “bad” teen, by the way). I don’t know whether she plays sports or an instrument or loves art or animals. But I do know that you have rigid rules in your home.
Because you don’t allude to why you have these rules, I have to guess: Did something happen to make you this unyielding? Was someone hurt physically or emotionally? Is there a story of abuse in your family’s life? Was there something about your past that makes these restrictions feel right? It is normal to be scared or worried and, from that emotional place, decide that an extreme rule makes sense. The rule is blocking out some of kind of anguish and giving you the facade of safety. You do allow a flip phone (which is fine and she technically doesn’t need anything more in her life), so you don’t want to cut her off from everything, but what dangers do texting, the Internet and social media hold in your mind? I know there are plenty of news stories that will strike fear into the heart of any parent, and maybe that’s all that’s happening here.
I am not suggesting that texting and social media aren’t a problem for teens; they can cause lack of sleep, diminished human-to-human contact and missed schoolwork, and that’s the small stuff. Teens are largely focused on themselves and their peer group, so adding the highly cultivated world of social media just adds pressure to a difficult time in their developmental lives. Just as it does for adults, social media can cause FOMO, or fear of missing out.
The smartphone is how typical American teens connect, support and love one another. Because of smartphones, our teens are some of the most global, news-literate humans on this Earth. So, good or bad, right or wrong, by not allowing her a smartphone, you may be setting up your child to feel isolated and left out. According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teens own or have access to a smartphone, and they list YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat as the their top sites. Without access, your daughter is left out of the teen version of “water-cooler conversation.” This may or may not be important to you (and you are entitled to this opinion), but you cannot deny that your teen daughter will be greatly affected . Again, that doesn’t mean you need to cave to the pressure, but you did ask me, “Should I worry about her not fitting in?” and, “Am I making her a target?” I don’t know if she will be a target of anything, but she will feel left out (she already does).
There is no surefire way to “protect her socially, emotionally, mentally and even physically.” You can remove all tech from your daughter’s life, and she will still experience heartache and pain. Life has its way of happening to us, no matter how much we protect ourselves. And the true irony? The more we try to protect our children from the world, the more we rob them of the opportunity to experience hardship and come through on the other side. No wisdom is earned when we don’t make mistakes, have heartache or experience joy, and we don’t want a young woman going out into the world who hasn’t experienced these emotions, right?
I am not suggesting that you go from a flip phone to a fully loaded smartphone with no rules. There are resources to help you navigate contracts, rules, apps and parental controls. Common Sense Media’s website dedicates a whole section to “Parent Concerns” and rates apps for you to review with your teen. Connectsafely.org provides contract templates for teens and their parents. And I especially like Adam Pletter’s online course for parents, iParent101.com. He sets a tone of common sense for parents who want to include technology in their family’s lives in a more positive way.
Once you hand your child a smartphone, you are giving yourself a huge job of babysitting, monitoring and upholding rules about the technology. No matter how many contracts and conversations you have with your child, the siren song of the smartphone will be too strong to resist. Your child will push for more time, for charging it in her room (smartphones never have to be charged in a teen’s bedroom) and for more social media and apps.
Be clear with yourself about how you are going to handle this. You will have to become more purposeful about finding time to talk to her, and you will have to be patient as you realize that you are not as interesting as Snapchat. I suggest that you join all of the platforms, get interested in the accounts she follows and why, and have a good sense of humor. Yes, scary stories of depression and sexting abound, but most teens are just snapping selfies and having fun. If you hand over a phone, stay involved and stay strong.
More from Lifestyle: