Recently I was sitting in a conversation with a few girlfriends when the topic of cell phones came up.
It’s common. If you have a tween, deciding when is the “right time” to provide your child with a mobile device comes up all the time.
“My kid has to wait until she is 13,” one mom exclaimed defiantly. “She doesn’t need to be walking around with a brand new iPhone at eleven. I mean, seriously!”
I nodded my head in agreement, although my daughter is one of the 11-year-old’s walking around with a brand new iPhone. Last Christmas our local Verizon store had an Oprah moment when we went in to upgrade my husband’s older model. After insisting we only wanted one upgrade, we walked out with six brand new iPhones, including one for my 75-year old mother.
And my three tweens doubted Santa was real.
Besides the awkward feeling that I needed to confess that my daughter was sporting a phone worth more than I paid for my first automobile, I was more interested in how zealous this mom felt about the appropriate age her daughter should have a phone. I was certain her daughter texted mine on a regular basis. In fact, I’m pretty sure she texted me one time to arrange a play date.
I interrupted her: “Wait, I thought she had a phone. Doesn’t she text?”
“Oh, she has her brother’s old iPod Touch, so it only works when she’s on our WiFi. It’s not like a phone.”
“Um, we gave her our WiFi password awhile back,” I sheepishly admitted. “They were doing the musical.ly app, and she needed Internet access. I was right there, but I thought it was okay. She said she is on it all the time.”
“She has our password, too,” my friend chimed in suddenly. “I guess I didn’t think about it, but she has access in our house, too.”
“And at Starbucks,” the third mom proclaimed. “The girls played Minecraft the other day, and I’m pretty sure she used their free Wifi.”
That’s when we all awkwardly looked at each other.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” I blurted out, breaking the deafening silence. “I mean, you’ve talked to her, right? She’s not on social media or anything, is she? Do you check her device?”
“I didn’t think I had to,” she admitted. “I honestly thought she was only online at home. I didn’t even know she could text. I thought since she didn’t have a phone, it would be okay.”
And that was the line right there. This mom is involved and caring. I trust her.
But we parents forget that everything our kids touch today is Web-enabled, and that means trouble.
The phone part is the least of our problems.
We think because our kids are growing up with technology, they inherently understand the rules. I often hear parents say, “I don’t know what they are doing on there,” or “I check it and they’re fine.”
Unfortunately, that’s not enough. Apps like SnapChat disintegrate messages or photos seconds after they appear on your child’s device (but long enough for a predator or bully to screenshot it.). The Vine app was designed to share short videos but is now a haven for kids to one-up each other on social media — the #FireChallenge was for real. And the Kik messenger app is a hot bed for predators attempting to blackmail young teens into sending inappropriate photos.
Unfortunately, avoiding these apps doesn’t even scratch the service. The recent trial of Michelle Carter, who was charged and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after encouraging a former boyfriend to commit suicide via text, shows the legal consequences associated with online bullying, and Facebook is considering cracking down on minors using their site.
Merely talking to your kids isn’t enough. We must speak a language they understand. We need to show them what can happen on the devices they want so badly, the ones that are like appendages on their little hands.
And we need to do it early. Because even if you decide your kid doesn’t get a phone, someone else’s child does. They will have access to things on the bus, after soccer practice, in your friend’s minivan during car pool. The only defense on the Internet is a good offense.
Here are a few tips to show your kids how they quickly things can go awry:
+ Group Text: If you have a teenager, you know that if they turn off their device for an hour, chances are there will be at least 379 texts waiting for them. Kids love to set up group texts with their friends to chat about anything and everything. Unfortunately, this is also where a lot of bullying and bad behavior starts. Grab a few parents and show your child how a group text can go off the rails. Cut and paste someone’s response and text it to someone else, or screenshot it and post it online. The point is to show how nothing said online is private.
+ Questioning Identity. Recently my husband received a text from a friend. With my three tween daughters standing there, I responded as my husband for several minutes. I finally admitted to the poor guy that it wasn’t in fact my spouse he was conversing with, but instead me. This showed my girls that even when you feel 100 percent certain you are communicating with a trusted friend, you can never be 100 percent sure. This is one of the hardest things for young people to grasp, but it’s the most important.
+ Social Media Scare. One of my three tween daughters asked me about setting up an Instagram account, like many of her friends have. She assured me it would be “private” and that I could even approve who could see her photos. I sent a connection request to her friend from my account, who immediately approved it in about 24 seconds. Then I then screenshotted three photos and texted them to my daughter’s phone. “Private like this?” I asked. Even she was freaked out about how easy a “private” account can be shared.
+ Criminal Intent. A friend of ours recently shared that her two young boys, ages 10 and eight, commandeered her phone and took a slew of photos that showed the moons of their hammies. They then texted a few of their favorites to their 13-year-old sister. After a stern lecture, my friend showed the boys several Florida state statutes that detailed what kiddie porn is and how once you transfer these types of photos across wireless carriers it becomes a federal offense with potential jail time. While the boys shed some tears, it was clear they did not understand the legal ramifications of sexting.
+ Test Text. Not sure how your kid will respond if approached by someone they don’t know? Try a “test text.” Borrow a friend’s phone and text your child. Explain that you are a friend from college, and that you are trying to coordinate a surprise visit, then ask if you can meet them outside of their home to make a plan when your mother isn’t around to find out. Tell them you were able to get their phone numbers from a school directory.
While this may seem extreme, before you trust your son or daughter with a device as powerful as a cell phone, don’t you want to be certain – absolutely certain – that they knew what to do in situations like these? The point of the exercise is not to scare or manipulate our kids; instead, we need to educate and empower them.
There is no magic age for cell phones.