At this point in my life as a parent, I am relatively mainstream in every way except one: my relationship to the digital world. I love Facebook, I publish several blogs, I text and I would be lost (literally) without my iPhone. Many of my friends swear by Instagram and Twitter.
My friends and I are adults, but even so, I've endured some unpleasant online interactions over the years involving poor judgment and hurt feelings (both mine and others'). So there are no group chats for me, no status updates about "my BFFs" or posts about private parties I've attended. I know this makes me a dinosaur: younger people, let alone many of my peers, surely find this kind of abstention and self-policing bizarre, but it feels right to me. I'm still learning, but I am out there: what places our family out of the mainstream are the restrictions we've placed on our children.
I have two daughters in middle school, and I feel compelled to protect them from the slings and arrows of this new stage. I try to be as relaxed as I can be about their social ups and downs, and to avoid becoming over-involved with their friendships (again, I am a work in progress). But middle school is a social jungle, and there's no way to change that. What I can do is strictly limit their exposure to the online component of their social scene.
My children are among the minority in their school who don't have a smartphone, iPod Touch, personal computer or iPad (beginning in sixth grade, their school lends them tablets, which need WiFi to work). When they began traveling by school bus in fifth grade, each got a "dumb" phone, useful only for phone calls and texts. They use the family computer and the school tablet for homework, as well as to play games, surf the web or watch Buzzfeed videos (does Buzzfeed know how many of its viewers are tween girls?). We've never believed in banning anything, fearing it will create "forbidden fruit" syndrome, so the children are allowed to be online within limits, and only at home or at school. Neither child has an Instagram account, a Facebook page, Snapchat or Twitter, which many, perhaps even most of their friends do, especially by the middle of seventh grade.
So far, there's been no major pushback from our children, but I hope that even if there were, my husband and I could stand firm. And I know there will be: I got this text recently from my younger daughter: "Mommy, guess what? C___ got an iPhone! I am the only person in fifth grade with no iPhone! Can I have an iPhone??" We know that at some point, we will have to say yes to smartphones and to social media, but we're comfortable pushing that decision as far into the future as possible. Although research shows no one makes reliably good decisions until the age of 25, thanks to that slow-growing pre-frontal cortex, 14 or 16 is at least a little more mature than 10 or 12. Even if we don't get our children smartphones until high school, we believe that still gives them plenty of time to learn how to use them responsibly under our watchful eyes.
Some will argue that I'm making my children outcasts by refusing to give them access to social media, but I'm fine with that, at least thus far. Let them be "unpopular," if you mean the kind of popularity determined by how many Instagram followers you have, or whether you're Snapchatting with the cutest boy in your grade's even cuter older brother. Both my children have good, strong friendships with many of their peers, which matters far more to me. I was definitely uncool in middle school, totally outside the loop of the cool girls. While I wasn't exactly happy then, knowing what the popular kids were doing and saying in excruciating, real-time detail would not have improved my happiness quotient. On the contrary: I suspect being forced to compare myself virtually and incessantly with them online as well as every day at school would have made middle school even more painful. At least when I was away from school, or with my friends, I could inhabit a world in which I was valued, and my quirky interests mattered. Social media makes that kind of escape far more difficult.
There's so much hand-wringing among parents about the dangers of the digital world, so much anxiety about cyber-bullying and sexting, so much grief about screen time's effects on kids and family lives. Furthermore, we know kids who have made mistakes online that had irrevocable, negative consequences. Yet it feels almost heretical, at least in our cohort, to suggest taking a much firmer stance. We all know parents who sigh as their kids text incessantly at family meals, who hate how consumed their child is by her smartphone, who want to pull their kids back into real interactions rather than virtual ones... but don't or can't change any of those things.
Children are curious and canny, and parenting is exhausting, so fuzzy rules usually end up being ineffective ones. I have no stake in judging other parents' choices -- good parents make the best decisions they can at any given moment -- but I can stand behind the limits we've set and tell you that it is okay to say no. Parents feel good setting restrictions on many things, such as television and movies and junk food, so why not apply those same standards to our kids' online experiences? The clearest advice I've heard on digital parenting is hold off as long as possible on allowing children full access to personal devices or social media, and so far, I have no regrets about sticking to that. It's been about as painful as telling them they can't watch R-rated movies or eat dessert before dinner: they don't like it, but I feel confident it's for their own good.