My youngest son is four, and he is addicted to screens. He is particularly addicted to interactive screens: Angry Birds on the Roku, dinosaur games on the TV, and now, at the tender age of four, Snapchat. His babysitter introduced him to it as a way to take funny pictures and put fun overlays onto them. So now he’s constantly trying to steal my Snapchat and make ridiculous pictures full of emojis and sloths and giant-ass garbled text overlaid in sparkles. I allow this. Then I snapchat the cuteness to my friends with the words “Sunny’s snap.”
I might ask, “Do you want to send this to Miss Mallory?” (his babysitter) or someone else. But he has no friends. He has no account of his own. He has no knowledge of how to actually send a snap.
But my eight-year-old would. My eight-year-old is old enough that his friends are starting to dip their toes into the waters of social media. Musical.ly, after all, is supposed to be a site for kids to take videos of themselves lip synching. It’s also a site for kids with far more time and sophisticated software than I have, because damn, most of these things are tightly edited.
So what if I let my eight-year-old have a phone — one child in a CNN article moved to California and found herself the only smartphone-less kid in her class — her fourth-grade class. A Nielson report released last February found that 45% of kids ages 10 to 12 had a mobile phone with a service plan. 16% got them at age 8. Eight.
Most parents say it’s because they want to be able to get hold of their child easily, so they can reach their parents easily, to track their location, or because they’ve been pestering them for a phone for some time, so they finally gave in.
My eight-year-old is already asking. And I am scared shitless.
I’m not too fussed about Facebook or Instagram — he likely wouldn’t find too many friends on there, and I don’t think the text-based Facebook platform would interest him, since he has dysgraphia. But Snapchat? He’d be all over Snapchat. And it would only take one of his buddies making fun of one of his snaps to launch him into a spiral of self-doubt. Blaise is easily influenced right now. Blaise also has a genetic predisposition for anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, which make him super-susceptible to psychiatric illness. As his mother, this is endlessly worrying for me. If any kid needs to be swaddled in bubble wrap, it’s him.
Then there’s the site Musical.ly, a site super-popular with kids his age that purports to be all about the kiddies lip-synching songs and uploading their videos. Sounds innocent enough, right? But, as one mom says, “Pretend you can turn your kid invisible. Pretend you drop your invisible kid off at a warehouse downtown LA. You have no idea who’s inside — fingers crossed it’s packed with Nobel Peace Prize winners, board-certified pediatricians and J.K. Rowling. Pray it is not packed with the worst of humanity. No one can see your kid, but your kid can see everyone and hear everything.”
And that “everything” — well, it’s pretty horrid. Some of it is disturbingly young girls lip-synching (where are the parents in all this? These kids look younger than Blaise.). Some of it is “proana” or “pro-anorexia” videos, including one in all black-and-white, titled “Thinspirations.” Another asks, “How many calories have you eaten today? I’ve eaten 300.” Not the sort of thing I needed to run into as a tween, thanks. Not the sort of thing I want my son to see and normalize either.
Then there are the suicidal videos. In one, a pretty younger teen cuts between a sad pic of herself and railroad tracks, titled “Goodbye” and hashtagged with #broken #hate, and in an attempt to evade censors, in German: #lie #self-hatred #all #SVV #SMG #print #blade #suicide.
Search “suicidal,” and a myriad of videos pop up with teens describing how they want to kill themselves. How they want to kill themselves. Yes, let’s open these doors to a kid prone to depression in general. That seems like a really good fucking idea.
I’m not kidding, as a parent, this social media world is terrifying.
I have not even touched the pedophiles. The masturbating bears. The YouTube videos of familiar characters doing horrible things. The gamers who will groom your child via those giant online multiplayer gaming platforms, be they Everquest or Xbox. The bullying. The disappointment when your post doesn’t get enough likes, when you get to the point that you feel like you have to hashtag your own face #ugly.
It all feels like too much.
My kids will get smartphones when they are smart and mature enough to have them. Which will likely be when they are sixteen. Until then, they can use cameras and flip-phones. The digital wild west is a little too wild for me, thanks. I’m going to keep my babies safe as long as possible. And that means keeping them away from smartphones. Away from social media. Away from the demons lurking at the door. And if that isn’t our job as parents, what is?
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