At one point during my 11-year-old daughter’s recent slumber party, my husband Joe and I made the rounds in our sleeping bag-strewn living room — at a pre-designated “electronics curfew” time — and collected our young guests’ tablets and phones, telling them we’d give the devices back in the morning.
Why? Because before we’d collected them, the girls had been physically in the room together, but all their eyes had been glued to individual screens.
The scene freaked me out. It looked more like a bunch of laptop-focused adults at a Starbucks than a hyped-up group of fifth grade girlfriends.
And although my husband and I didn’t really talk about this sleepover scene until later, I could feel the buzzing undercurrent of our longstanding argument: at what age should our daughter get her own phone?
Joe’s pretty ready to hand one over in the near future, but I’m thinking high school at the earliest — and we’re kind of stuck in this impasse.
I mean, we were on the same page about getting the girls to engage with each other face-to-face at the sleepover. But I also knew that Joe probably thought that Lily, our daughter, must feel left out because she didn’t have her own device, while I thought, “Thank God, we haven’t given in yet to the peer pressure.”
And resistance is only getting harder. The parenting landscape, in regard to tech, is changing fast, so that while only a couple of the 10-year-old attendees to last year’s slumber party had a phone or tablet, all eight 11-year-olds at this year’s celebration came bearing at least one device (if not more).
Plus, the average age for when a kid gets a phone in America these days is ten, while less than a decade ago, it was more like twelve or thirteen, according to the Pew Research Center.
“This is the world we live in now,” Joe will say when we’re preparing dinner together, or out for a weekend run. (Lily, of course, had begged us to buy her a phone this year as a birthday present.) “This is how Lily’s friends communicate with each other. We can’t change that.”
“I know,” I say. “But she doesn’t need to have her own phone. She’s 11, for God’s sake. We got by just fine without them when we were her age.”
Joe will then try to reason with me, in his uber-rational attorney way, that times have changed.
“Plus, Lily’s getting older, and there will be times when she needs to reach us,” he says.
“When? When will we be away from her that long, in a situation where she couldn’t ask to borrow a friend’s phone, or an adult’s?” I say, before blurting out, “Let’s not talk about this right now.”
This is pretty much how I always cut off the argument and kick it squarely down the road. (It’s interesting to me that I, a highly conflict-averse person, fell in love with and eventually married a man who argues not just for a living, but for fun.)
Yet when we have this conversation, I inevitably question myself and my judgment, because Joe – a smart, thoughtful man with whom I more often than not concur when it comes to parenting choices – disagrees with me so profoundly.
Then again, I tell myself, on this specific topic, I just might be more informed.
I’m the one frantically reading Atlantic articles like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” – which explores how rates of depression among teens skyrocketed in tandem with this demographic’s heavy smartphone use – and books like Maryanne Wolf’s “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World,” and Catherine Price’s “How to Break Up with Your Phone.”
Why? Because when I noticed my own waning ability to sustain focus while reading or writing (or even watching a movie) – despite my lifelong passion for these pursuits – I grew anxious about how digital devices will inevitably impact my young, still-developing children, too.
Plus, research has shown that times of sustained focus, whether it involves face-to-face connection or reading, are among the things that provide the most contentment in our lives. But if we’re collectively losing our ability to regularly achieve that kind of joy, what will our lives look like?
These are the things I obsess about while lying awake at night.
Joe, meanwhile, shares none of my neuroses regarding this topic; and when I voice my worries, he shrugs with zen-like resignation, like he’s watching me frantically stacking sandbags in the face of a Freedom Tower-sized tsunami.
“Didn’t you ever not have something that your friends had when you were a kid?” he asks me. “Don’t you remember how that feels?”
“Yes,” I say. “But it didn’t feel like there was so much was at stake when I wanted Jordache jeans. It didn’t feel like my mental health and intellectual capacity were hanging in the balance.”
“We can’t keep Lily in bubble wrap,” Joe tells me.
And that’s the problem. As a parent, the world as it appears through the lens of the internet terrifies me, and I hate the idea of placing my daughter in that realm before I feel like she’s ready and mature enough to handle all that comes with it.
Because this irresistibly seductive window to “virtual connection” and casual engagement is also inevitably a window to hate, and online bullying, and eating disorders, and every other awful thing out there. The more compulsively addicted we become, the more our online lives tend to overshadow our IRL experiences.
Which is too bad, because my family happens to be really lucky. We live in a small town, where our neighbors look out for (and regularly chat with) our daughters. We often walk downtown together to go to the bakery, or the second-run movie theater, or a restaurant, or the farmer’s market; and we always run into more people we know, out walking their dog or just enjoying (or complaining about) the weather.
I want my kids to see and truly appreciate the open-hearted micro-world around them — and let that be their foundation — before they stumble into the virtual world’s toxic alleyways.
Because if I, as a 48-year-old woman struggling to cut back on my own reflexive phone use, have so much trouble psychically processing what’s on my screen, how on earth can I expect my 11-year-old to do so and still retain any sense of hope?
I can’t – which is precisely why I keep arguing to keep a phone out of my preteen daughter’s hands for as long as possible.
I know I’ll be having this same conversation with Joe again later this year, as Hanukkah and Christmas approach. And he and I will likely explore compromises, like getting Lily a flip phone she can use to call or text only.
But for the time being, I’ve sidestepped this issue by letting Lily, for her birthday, get her ears pierced.