Why Getting My 8th Grade Child A Cell Phone Was So Difficult And Emotional

by Dr. Lisa Strohman
An 8th grade girl with a smart phone in her hands while lying stomach down a beige

I dreaded this day.

I have counseled hundreds of parents about this moment, listened to thousands of them over the years confessing it was the biggest mistake of their parental lives. Now it was time for my husband and I to face the decision.

My daughter, who is in 8th grade, has never asked for a phone, and has even mocked her friends for being attached to their phones too much. Nevertheless, during a recent casual lunch she discussed her maturity, her difficulty in friendships with peers for being phone-free, and how isolated she seems from the surrounding world. A handful of times her teachers asked students to use their phones to snap images in textbooks or on the board. I am embarrassed to admit that I knew I was putting her at a disadvantage, but I did not care. There is so much negativity that I have witnessed over the years it didn’t seem the benefit was worth the risk. However, thanks to some insight from an amazing friend, I recognized that I was allowing my profession to bias me against every instance of phone use. Begrudgingly, I fessed up that it was time to allow my precious, innocent, smart, bold, and beautiful young daughter to have a phone.

Is it the phone, the technology, or the internet that is evil? No. I can’t go there. I instinctively want to jump into the …. “but evil exists in it and here is how…” mode, but this is more about the pain of saying goodbye to my little girl in such a difficult and profound way for me, her mom. This is not about me, the psychologist, working within the confines of psychology to analyze how technology influences (dominates is actually a better word) our every moment. This is simply about a mom recognizing that it is an end of an era for her daughter.

Not all kids live with a mom who has made it her global mission to keep kids safe online by educating them through online lessons, creating companies and foundations to support the mission, and even writing a book on the subject. So when my husband and I sat her down to discuss our expectations from her, she was not surprised when we insisted on her writing a thoughtful contract that she felt we would agree to. (In fact, she finished writing it in under an hour). We were quite clear about there being no social media AT ALL (which is where I truly believe 99% of all teen problems begin). There was a very early lesson (lecture?) about respecting the device as a tool for her to use rather than to be used by. She was made to understand that this was not a gift, it was not wrapped around a special occasion. It was a tool that we purchased to support her in her life.

The emotional journey I traveled when handing over the phone and watching the results was devastatingly sad and, yet, amazing at the same time. Of course, before I handed over the phone, I did what any tech safe advocate/mom would do — I set up parameters that concealed her location, turned off notifications, had her go through my digital cell phone licensing program, negotiated a contract (yes, negotiated, buy in is critical), and ensured we had some apps that I know are critical in containing the wandering curious mind of a teen. Within 30 minutes of her phone’s activation, she had been added to her team soccer chat and had FaceTimed with a couple of teammates who were clearly as bored as she was over the Thanksgiving break. What an amazing moment to see my very quiet, introverted daughter have such joy and connection!

We did also have a moment of stress on that first day when we were cooking together. I was teaching her my family’s potato soup recipe using leftover mashed potatoes when she directed me to wait “just a second” so she could finish a 6-minute-plus text . . . And, yes, of course I timed it. . . I ignored her “directive” and continued cooking, which resulted in her eventually asking, “Why didn’t you wait for me?” She needed to learn the valuable lesson that real people in real time always win over text people every time. Still, it was a particularly difficult early lesson, and one that hurt my heart just a bit, seeing how quickly her perspective can be lost.

I must learn my own lessons as well. For example, I need to accept that this very smart, sweet, naïve young lady who always wanted to spend time with mom, now is more interested in being with her teen peers. We all did it, but for some reason the technology behind this moment pained me. Perhaps having lost my mom far too early in life is part of it; nevertheless, it was poignantly evident there was a loss happening. The sadness of accepting that she is no longer a little girl, something which should have been evident once her height reached mine.

As I write this, I have tears streaming down my face. Ridiculous you might think? I certainly agree it is a bit of an overreaction. This should be a moment of fun, excitement, and one that we treasure. Yet, the sadness is authentic. I worry about what is to come but take some comfort in that she is probably more prepared for it than any other 13-year-old on this planet. She has been my creative partner, collaborator, and critic for most of the educational content I have developed for families and kids each year. She has helped me review my online resource library for our K-12 program, and she has even edited scripts for the diversion program for kids who have stepped into murky waters online. I know she makes good decisions. That is a given. This is solely about a mom’s love for her daughter, one that most every other mother knows. A love which is deep, complex, complicated, and tumultuous—all at the same time.

I pray the world is good to her. I pray that she will not encounter anything too horrifying, scary, or corrupt as she walks this new journey. Her graduation into the digital world has made me realize it is more important than ever that I find new ways to support and protect our children as they navigate these digital spaces. My commitment and passion have found new depths, and I will be there for her and for all children/families as they take on this brave new world.