When my soon-to-be 5th grader started begging me for a phone last summer, I laughed right in his face. “Are you kidding me?” I said. “I didn’t get my first phone till I was 23. Why on earth do you need a phone—one that will cost me an arm and a leg, and that you will likely lose in about 5 seconds?”
At the same time my son and I were engaged the Great Cell Phone Debate, we were preparing for 5th grade, which is the first year that kids are allowed to walk home from school alone, and my son was begging me to let him do that. We live close enough to the school that it would work well—and I knew it would make my life that much easier, especially since I also have his rambunctious little brother to contend with.
Along with walking home from school, we also talked about walking to friends’ houses, the deli down the block, the library, and the pizza place. And that’s when it hit me — when I was his age, if I wandered around town with my friends, there were payphones literally everywhere, and I could call my parents if I needed anything. If I spontaneously decided to go to a friend’s house after school, it was no problem because I could use my friend’s house phone to call home and tell my parents what was up.
Now, there are literally zero payphones in our town, and half of the families we know don’t have home phones anymore. We live in a mobile phone world, and if I wanted to keep the lines of communication open with my son as I let him become a more independent tween and teen, I realized I was going to have to get him a phone.
A goddamn phone. At ten years old. It seemed so wrong, but it also seemed to be the best choice.
So I did a bit of research and decided that I would get him a cheap, old fashioned flip-style phone, just for texting and calling. That way, he wouldn’t be sucked into the addictive qualities of a smart phone, my data usage bill wouldn’t be through the roof, and if he lost it, it wouldn’t be a big deal. He was totally smitten with this idea (and he was quick to point out that even flip phones have simple video games).
When I found out that a basic phone plan was only $20 a month, my son even agreed to pay half the bill with his allowance, which we both thought would be a great way to teach financial responsibility.
So here we are. Much to my initial chagrin, my kid has a phone — and so far it’s been working really well. When his little brother wants to play in the playground after school, I send my big kid home alone. He texts me when he arrives. On my way home, I text him if I’m going to the deli to get a bagel, and I ask him if he wants one. Sometimes we text each other cute little jokes, and sometimes he even opens up to me about little worries he has, or his feelings about this and that. It’s a pretty rad way for us to communicate, actually.
So far, he’s one of the only kids in his grade with a phone. I know that eventually other kids will be getting phones, and his texts won’t be limited to his dear old mom anymore. Like many parents, I have real concerns about the impact of texting and social media on my children’s lives. I have read the research showing that cyberbulling is a serious concern, with one recent study out of Bridgewater State University suggesting that it hits elementary school kids the hardest.
But it seems to me that it’s all about being smart, and educating your child at a young age on how to deal with these situations if they come up—and most importantly, how to avoid them in the first place. My son already uses social media a little when he plays interactive video games online, and we talk about internet safety all the time.
He knows to never ever give out personal information to anyone online, including his age or where he goes to school. Here and there, he has reported back to me if anything someone says rubs him the wrong way, even in the slightest way. I have the password to every online subscription or account he has, as well as the passcode for his phone, so I can check in on his phone-related activities from time to time.
And I will continue to until I feel he can handle this stuff on his own (which I admit may be just about never).
I’m not adverse to him getting a smartphone someday either, and I don’t think we will necessarily need to take the “wait till 8th pledge” as so many are encouraging. The older my son gets, the more I see him needing to use the Internet and even mobile apps for school, and I know this is only going to increase as he gets older.
As scary as this whole new tech landscape might seem to us parents, technology is here to stay. It’s a part of our lives now, and we need use it smartly, and trust our kids to do the same.
I know the whole thing can be terrifying, but it’s all about open lines of communication with your kids, monitoring the technology they have access to, and teaching them about stranger danger and Internet safety. Most of all, it’s about teaching them to be kind and respectful to everyone they meet—in real life or online.
And then, just closing your eyes and jumping in. Technology ain’t going anywhere, and our best bet is to embrace it.