Parents: Flip Phones Are Still an Option!

During this past school year, I crossed the threshold of 1600 school visits throughout the US, Canada and Latin America since first telling my son’s tragic story of his cyberbullying and suicide to a group of Vermont students back in 2005. The response and impact to this day remains powerful, life changing and long lasting as demonstrated by the messages at his website. Ryan’s story has inspired so many middle and high school students over the years to do one or more of the following: seek help for suicidal ideation; stop being bystanders to bullying; and/or apologize to someone they bullied. Although his story is over 13 years old at this point and from the AIM (AOL Instant Messaging) time frame, the fundamentals of cyberbullying are still the same today as they were back then; basically a device with internet access enabling a young person to hide behind a screen and say or do things they would never have the audacity to do in person.

Unfortunately, I continue to hear first-hand horrific stories of cyberbullying while visiting schools. Administrators and counselors tell me that the cyberbullying seems to be getting worse with every new app and electronic gear that comes onto the scene. And the real sad thing is that the problem is now occurring in the younger grades too. For instance, I learned of a situation where some 4th graders took pictures of a special needs student and mocked them on Instagram. Sadly, there are similar countless stories of young students doing unthinkable mean things to each other through apps like KIK and Snapchat too. However, these situations are so easily preventable if parents would just simply use common sense. Quite frankly, our entire country should be cyberbullying free from pre-K right through 6th grade at the very least. Why? Because they are all under the age of 13 years old!

Congress passed COPPA — Children’s On-line Privacy Protection Act back in 1998 with good reason. They realized as the internet was becoming popular, we certainly did not want websites collecting personal data of minors without parental consent. So this law was enacted and extends to all the social media websites and apps on your child’s smartphone today. Social media companies such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. all have to comply with this law. There are two ways to comply. One way to let a child under the age of 13 use the service, the social media company has to get a verified parental consent letter, which is then put on file and ready for a potential FTC — Federal Trade Commission audit for compliance. The key word here is verified. That requires a very costly documentation management process which is just not reasonable for any company trying to maximize profitability. So the other way to comply is to clearly state in the terms of use that the user must be at least 13 years old. For instance, you will find this is the very first term of use item for Instagram yet countless underage children use the popular service by simply lying about their age when they sign up. And so many parents turn a blind eye because “everyone else allows their child to do it too.”

Pre-teens and arguably young teenagers, are generally not mature enough nor equipped with the social skills to navigate the social media world without getting into social interaction problems. There are so many fights and hurt feelings along with just plain inappropriate behavior occurring, primarily due to lack of parental awareness and supervision. And so this has now become the number one problem for school counselors and administrators. There is so much drama and bullying that goes on throughout the weekend and school week nights that often end up spilling right into the school day and disrupting the delivery of education because they now have a very upset student unable to focus academically. If you speak to any school social worker or counselor, they will also tell you that there has been a dramatic increase of emotional issues in recent years correlating with the proliferation of smartphone use among pre-teens and teenagers. The drama is now 24–7 thanks to these devices. Excessive smart phone use is basically making many of them stressed out and mentally ill.

Leading child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans believes easy and constant access to the internet is harming youngsters.

If I was in charge of a school district, I would simply ban smart phones from my elementary schools through sixth grade. Why? Besides the problems they are obviously creating, a child under the age of 13 is not supposed to be using most of the apps they want to use on that phone in the first place. Plus, I don’t think their lives are that complicated that they need to have a very expensive smart phone to keep things organized. I keep hearing parents say, “Well I want to be able to reach my kid in case of an emergency.” Well a simple flip phone would suffice in this case. A simple one that can just send and receive calls. It should be one without a camera, text messaging or internet access. Parents, I just saved you from wasting $30-$50 a month on a data plan and potentially even a lot more in avoided therapy co-payments.

Can we please let children just be children for just a little bit longer? Why are we exposing them to the adult world at such a young tender age? Let’s face it, a young child with a smart phone can easily access adult material too. Ten to fifteen years ago, the conventional wisdom was to only allow a computer to be in a high traffic public space in the home. Allowing a computer in a child’s bedroom was consider reckless parenting. Well, where are we today? I see very young children with devices in their hands that allow for a ton more private screen time. We seem to have lost our collective parenting common sense when it comes to these devices and our children. For instance, it is so sad how much sexting has become a problem too among teens and pre-teens. But should we really be shocked when young children are given such easy access to hard core pornography. Yet another preventable situation with only a basic flip phone in their hands.

For those parents who want their underage child to be exposed to and learn how to use social media, I have a safer proposal that would even comply with COPPA. Set up a family account for use only on the family shared home computer or tablet. You are the administrator and owner of the account. You log your child in and out. You will see everything on this openly shared account as they read and post comments. And they will see your postings too. This will be an opportunity for you to model appropriate behavior and to point out bad behavior when you both see it on-line. A teachable moment can occur in how one might appropriately respond to inappropriate or mean postings. By the way, I would somehow make it very obvious in the name or title of the account that this is indeed a family account. This will keep a lot of stupidity away from your home if the peers have half a brain. It may even encourage your less mature adult friends to censor themselves too! So there is the solution if you were so worried about your child being socially isolated because everyone else’s underage child is doing it too. However, my preference would be to tell them to just go outside and play. But don’t forget the flip phone in case you need to reach them or they need to reach you.

John Halligan, President and CEO of Ryan’s Story Presentation LTD.

John Halligan is an anti-bullying and suicide prevention advocate. He is the co-founder and president of Ryan’s Story Presentation, an organization delivering anti-bullying and suicide prevention presentations internationally for students and parents in memory of his son. He has appeared on many national television programs including Primetime with Diane Sawyer, PBS Front Line and Oprah. He and his wife Kelly reside in Farmingdale, NY. For information, please visit www.RyansStory.org. His highly acclaimed parent presentation is now available as a video-on-demand at http://bit.ly/21LK6Ic.