Second only to “I want,” “I-phone” is the most uttered refrain in my house. Lately, the two have combined into a hurricane force of pre-teen social anxiety that has me shaking in the gale force winds of peer pressure, swaying between what I think is best for my ten-year-old daughter vs. what everyone else is doing. And it isn’t just peer pressure, its inadvertent parent pressure: If other parents didn’t give their children their own devices, my daughter wouldn’t be clamoring 24/7 for one.
I would say 80% of my daughter’s girlfriends have a device (iPhone, ipod, iPad, what have you). Our household was never phased by this phenomena until a group chat started to develop between girls who had their own i-devices (It was rather organic: “You have a phone?” “So do I!” “ Let’s chat … about nothing … constantly!”). It’s not democratic per se, but no one is excluded on the basis of personality — just access. Once upon a time this socio-economic exclusion might have been problematic in its own right, but we parents have bigger fish to fry now.
I don’t want my daughter to feel left out. Worse, I don’t want it to be my fault if she is. So I gave in to this trend in the most self-punishing way possible (without totally betraying the wait-until-8th movement which has parents pledging not to give their kids smartphones before 8th grade): I began allowing my daughter to text on my phone.
After one week of hundreds of texts per day, I was questioning this sharing-is-caring approach. Besides the daily tug-of-war with my daughter for physical custody of the phone, there were the constant pings of these text notifications. “Ping … ping … ping … ping, ping!” day and night. It was making me insane. I felt like a doctor on-call for 160 straight hours. Ping, Ping, Ping… (Putting my phone on mute is not an option. Our son has type 1 diabetes, and I track his blood sugar levels through my phone.)
I considered breaking down and getting my daughter her own device just to stop the damn voices — er, pings. This would have been some serious evil genius on her part if that had been her intention all along. (Imagine your daughter petting a hairless pussycat Dr. Evil style. I did.)
When I told my daughter this system was no longer tenable for me, practically or emotionally, she took my phone with unprecedented authority, confidently swiped right on the group text and switched to a setting I didn’t even know existed: “Hide all alerts.” Presto: No more beeping. So the relationship between her and my iPhone soldiers on, silently.
I forewarned her, however, that she had no expectation of privacy, that I reserved the right to check in on the content of her texting at any time. As it turns out, this is the most boring group chat ever. It’s just a bunch of “Hi’s” and “Anyone here’s?” and GTG’s (“Got To Go” — I googled it, concerned it may be code for joining a cult.) A small part of me almost hoped to catch something with some bite, if only to justify my vigilance, make me feel less a “Peeping Mom.”
In my diligence, I find myself reading things I’d rather not — nothing pernicious, thankfully, just cringe-worthy: some social awkwardness, bad grammar, time-stamped proof that some of her friends are not getting enough sleep…
I am also dipping in and out of the angst of middle school all over again: the neediness of social connection and the insecurities of not feeling connected enough. The worst is reading the earnest “Why wasn’t I invited?” when some members flagrantly discuss playdates or birthday parties some — but not all — were invited to.
This “Where’s-Waldo” group text phenomena of constantly checking-in, knowing who has a playdate with whom, who is sleeping over where — and who isn’t — has obliterated the ignorance-is-bliss that was once the cornerstone of middle-school survival. Digital FOMO now plagues the uninvited who would be so much happier if they were just kept it the damn dark. (Speaking of sleepovers, I see that girls are FaceTiming each other — while in bed next to each other.)
Being a voyeur to all this makes me feel like I’m rubbernecking on the highway after a minor car accident: I don’t see any real, immediate harm, but the potential for carnage renders me incapable of looking away.
Perhaps I just have PTSD from last year’s independent film Eighth Grade, a haunting coming-of-age — in the digital age. I spent the entire movie writhing and contorting in my seat, burying the bottom half of my face in my sweater, as I willed in vain for the awkward middle-school main character to somehow be less so. The dramatic irony was way more as intense — and far more personal — than it was in The Blair Witch Project. I found myself urgently cautioning the young girl “Don’t do that!” or “Don’t say that!” like all our lives depended on it. This wasn’t a pile-up. It was a train wreck — watching an iPhone-addicted 8th grader with no real friends searching for online and real-world connections, not realizing the former was cockblocking the latter.
I don’t want that for my daughter — for anyone. But I don’t know how to protect her from it either. Sharing my device is only staving off the inevitable, and soon I will have to make the decision to wait till eighth or “just say no.”
But then I remember my friend “Holly” from high school whose mother, an exercise bulimic, locked up all the kitchen cupboards when her daughter started gaining some weight during puberty. I remember my friend consuming multiple chipwiches per hour in the school store she managed, finally away from prying/denying eyes. She became the obese embodiment of her mother’s worst fears: not only fat, but sheepish about it.
Absolutes and outright denials can truly be the enemy of progress when it comes to protecting our children. Phone calls are not endangering our kids — our generation talked on the phone for hours after school and text is the modern-day equivalent. But unfettered exposure to the internet and social media opens a Pandora’s Box we can’t close. Kids can’t unsee stuff. If a kid googles sex, (I know I would have back in the days if the option existed), they are introduced to a wormhole of graphic videos. In fact, I tried it. The third video that came up on Google had this unsavory hashtag: #teen.
Can we all agree then to keep our children away from unrestricted internet access and social media? But let’s not wait-till-eighth here. Here, let’s wait till eighteen. At eighteen, our children are more informed and legally allowed to make their own decisions (and suffer the full consequences). I’m not saying “Not my problem” but it kind of isn’t once they reach adulthood. And eighteen, when kids are unleashed into college or the world, is a far fairer age to expect kids to make good choices.
So, what happens if all the kids in the class are making plans on Facebook or Instagram? Can’t social media be prohibited by the school? We expect our schools to protect our kids — and in the age of the internet and social media, that means protecting them from themselves as well as each other. If schools can punish kids for putting racist, homophobic or bullying language on social media, why can’t they ban students outright from having social media accounts?
Some parents who are anti-iPhones are fine with iPods for their middle-school aged kids (Wifi internet access, but no phone/text feature). In my quest to understand the practical difference between the two, I played devil’s advocate with a friend who once told me she wanted to wait until her kid was in high school to get him an iPhone. Curiously (at least I thought) she bought him an iPod Touch this past Christmas, in 4th grade.
When I challenged her assumption that iPods are somehow safer at this age, she kept repeating “He can’t make calls or text!” as if it were an accusation. (Actually, he can: While you may not be able to make traditional phone calls on an iPod, kids can still FaceTime or text using an Apple ID. Where there is a little will, there are a lot of ways).
When I proposed that the phone/text feature of the iPhone is the only useful aspect of either device, she panicked that I might be considering an iPhone for my daughter, and warned “Don’t fuck this up!” (referring to some implicit all-for-one-or-none-for-all mom pact. When it comes to parenting and technology, there’s a trickle-down mentality.)
*I should also point out that this entire exchange happened over text :)
Yet, I have another mom-friend, far less plagued by self-doubt than I am on this (and most topics) who argued that giving them the iPod as a starter device is a first step in teaching kids digital responsibility. And her kids are doing great handling this, her youngest can kind of take it or leave it even.
So, really, there are some kids who are just ready sooner than others. It’s a lot like that other thing we tell our kids to wait for. But the pressure to just get it/just do it is the same.
The difference between devices, however, is merely a matter of perception I think — and a marketing win for Apple who has parents buying iPods for their kids in fourth grade and then upgrading to iPhones in sixth.
As if middle and high school aren’t anxiety-provoking enough, I hear stories of kids counting down the minutes of class so they can check their devices for the texts and social media notifications they missed while they were supposedly learning. Can we ban smartphone use in schools altogether during the school day just to provide kids some relief?
Also, if I were designing a smartphone for kids, I’d make camera and video capabilities wholly separate from calling and sharing capabilities. I’m fine with what I call “dumb” phones, the call/text only options like the Light Phone, which is the phone or phone-and-text only alternative to “smartphones” (ironically named given how many stupid decisions kids make on them). But sharing can be life-impairing. If a kid has to wait to share — forced to take the time to upload a video from one device (a camera) to another (a computer) in order to share — I bet sounder decisions will ensue.
Exhibit A: My children go to a self-proclaimed progressive school, ever mindful of promoting pride and equality in gender, sexual orientation, race and religion. So what happens when a group of high school kids get tipsy and sing verbatim the offensive lyrics from an explicit rap song, including the racial and homophobic slurs that comprise said lyrics. Like a tree falling in the forest — where most adolescent errors once remained — does anyone hear it, unless they video’ed themselves doing it (which of course they did. And then shared it.)
This could have been a teachable moment, as they say — if it hadn’t been shared amongst the kids. But given the ease of foolhardy dissemination, the conversation of “where did we go wrong” personally and institutionally has been displaced by recriminations and discussions of suspension, personal/institutional embarrassment and revoking college acceptances.
I’m not sure until when we should wait to introduce these complicating technology into a child’s life, but I do think this discussion has to start a lot earlier than middle school — and include our kids. Not sure if the trusty “This is your brain”/“This is your brain on i-Phone” egg-in-the-frying-pan analogy will work like it did in the eighties. But it might make sense to get a consensus among kids, as well as parents, on how we can help them live their happiest lives. Goodness knows, I would be happier if we did.