"Please, please, please," my 10-year-old daughter begged this month, "I NEED a phone!" I asked her why. I had already decided, mind you, that she'd be getting a phone next fall now that she's walking to and from school and changing her schedule regularly. So when she said this is exactly what she needed it for, I said sure. Before she could jump through the ceiling with glee, I added, "But it's not going to be a smartphone. It is going to be a barebones, no-frills phones, and quite possibly embarrassing." Cut to a less happy face and pleading for a smartphone...
The answer was "No."
Having seen up close and personal so much drama around smartphones over the past year during MEDIAGIRLS classes, I have big concerns with giving them out to girls like it's a given rite of passage. I've seen girls fall to pieces because a boy texted them before class saying, "I'm breaking up with you" (by text!). I've watched girls become distraught because they were left off a group pic in Instagram signaling social disaster. One teen told me recently, "If I post a selfie, and it doesn't get a bunch of 'likes' in the first 20 seconds, I'll pull it down." It is hard enough to make decisions as a teen without making them all so publicly and facing an endless sea of "likes" and "dislikes." My 13-year-old and 15-year-old nieces both admitted to me they're addicted to Instagram and "kind of wish it didn't exist."
I've had to take away several girls' phone during our programming because girls admittedly couldn't handle having it close by and not checking it constantly. When our girls swear to us they won't become addicted, they mean it--but yet they mostly do.
• 81 percent of youth under 25 sleep with their phone next to them on the bed.
• 74 percent reach for their smartphones immediately after waking up.
• 97 percent of teens and 91 percent of 20-year-olds regularly use smartphones in the bathroom to check messages.
So why are so many parents giving their kids smartphones? It's probably because so many other kids are getting them. A recent survey conducted by mobile service provider Zact found that 56 percent of children ages 10 to 13 have a smartphone, and 25 percent of children ages 2 to 5 have a smartphone!
But that doesn't mean we have to throw up our hands and join the flock. I've looked to see what the experts recommend, and there seems to be consensus that sometime during the middle-school years is appropriate (depending on maturity) -- and with a clear explanation of rules and even a contract of understanding between you and your child with specific rules. Here's a sample contract. I, for one, think we should stall the process until at least 7th grade.
Maybe you have good reasons for giving your nine- or ten-year-old a smartphone. You obviously know your family dynamics far better than I do. All I ask is that you think through your choice with intention, and not because "all the other parents are doing it."
Believe me, I know how lousy it feels to be the parent who says no when so many of my daughter's friends have heard "yes." It stinks to stand there while your child explains in tears that she is going to be the social outcast without a smartphone. But being the "bad guy" is what we sometimes sign on for when we became a parent. It is our job to raise our kids with values we believe in. It is not our job to make sure our kids are always happy but rather to look out for their well-being the best we can.
I told my daughter my reasons for saying "no," and that it was non-negotiable this year. I told her that while I hate being the "bad guy," I also need to follow my own gut and do what I think is right. And that is ultimately what I most want for her to do too.