I love my iPhone. I love the ping of an incoming e-mail and the double ping of an incoming text. I love how it keeps me in relationship with two of my friends who each live 100 miles away. I love how it’s allowed me to answer questions from work while laying on the beach and field questions from our kitchen while I am finishing up at work. I love how I can take photos and quickly send them to grandparents, friends or Jacob, away at college. My phone keeps me closely connected to all the people who matter most to me. I rarely go anywhere without my smart phone.
And my strong positive feelings about my phone are precisely why neither of my daughters—ages 10 and 12—will get a phone anytime soon. My strong positive feelings are why my two sons—ages 15 and 18—had to wait until eighth grade and freshman year of high school respectively, to get their own non-smart, no keyboard flip phone. They had to wait even longer for Facebook accounts.
Managing my phone has little to do with managing technology and everything to do with managing relationships. I treasure my relationships, and I know this is why I have such fond feelings for my phone. It’s like carrying all the people I love (plus those I work with) around in my purse and having access to them all the time. I have no doubt my girls would feel similarly attached to their phones, if they had them. But Bill and I believe that for children in grade school, primary relationship efforts need to go toward family members, not friends. Our daughters need to build a strong connection first and foremost with my husband and me. Our voices and values need to be loud and clear now because our time at center stage is limited—high school brings with it less time with the family and more time with friends, and more potential to move away from what we’ve spent all childhood teaching. Every minute texting a friend is a minute not spent being present to the people in the home. We’ve got about thirty months with Teenasia and fifty-four with Jamie to help them become so deeply the girls that God means for them to be that they will be strong enough to hold to their true selves, even in the face of high school peer pressure. I am happy to share these final months before the teen years with my girls’ friends—through playdates, activities, sports and church. But we will not give our girls away to unsupervised time of texting or online social networks.
A phone that allows instant and constant access to friends and acquaintances requires the phone’s owner to have both wisdom and self-discipline, neither of which exactly run rampant among the grade school set. For middle-school girls, gossip is a constant lure as children jockey for social position within a class. I was a middle school girl once myself, and I still remember my horror when my seventh grade teacher intercepted a snarky note I tossed to my friend about another girl. I am still embarrassed about my unkind words about that girl and am thankful that the teacher ripped up the note, so that the girl would never know what I said about her. But a note from a 12-year-old today, written not on a scrap of paper, but texted impulsively, could be repeatedly forwarded and cause hurt beyond anything that was possible before. Our girls need to be protected from themselves. They do not need any device that makes it even easier to compare themselves with others; to gossip; to move up or down in the social hierarchy of the class. Girls will find enough ways to do this on their own. They do not need a phone more advanced than the computers that took men to the moon to help them with their clique-development.
In a friend’s daughter’s sixth grade class last year, Instagram was all the rage. Instagram describes itself as “A fast, beautiful, fun way to share photos with family and friends.” But boys in the class were using it to send inappropriate photos and girls were using it to take pictures of gatherings where other girls weren’t invited. The parents eventually found out and most took the app away from their children’s phones, but the damage had been done.
Studies show that both adults and children will say things online or in texts that they would not have the courage to say out loud, in person. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, explains it this way: “We're less inhibited online because we don't have to see the reaction of the person we're addressing. Because it's harder to see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other.”
We are in our infancy as a society in learning how to manage advancing personal technology. Just as it took numerous fatal automobile accidents in the early twentieth century before society caught on that drivers should need to go through a licensing process, and even longer before sixteen was chosen as the minimum age to drive, so it will be with today’s children, phones and online access. As a society, we will likely need to live through a generation of children damaged by texting and risky online behavior before we understand the true danger. Perhaps when this generation of children grows up, they will look back on 2013 and say to their own children. “Can you imagine—I grew up back when parents still gave phones to 10-year-olds?”
The parents holding out now will be shown to have been ahead of our time.