Op-Ed: At What Age Should Kids Get Cell Phones?

Originally published on Moms Anonymous, a site for Parents of Tweens

This is an ongoing debate with parents of tweens. So many factors are involved, emotional as well as practical. Right now, as my oldest tween is beginning 5th grade, this is an especially hot topic with my peers. The past few years at our school there has been an “unspoken promise” that parents give graduating 5th graders phones upon leaving elementary school. This rumor has been passed on from previous classes so that both my kids know it to be true. But is it? Will it be?

This summer I stumbled on a movement (a call-to-action to make a “pledge”) called Wait Until 8th. A group of mothers in Austin, TX banded together and promised themselves, their kids and their community to refrain from giving cell phones, specifically smartphones, to their children until eighth grade. I was intrigued. I was swept up by the group’s well-written, enthusiastic and passionate pursuit to “do the right thing” for their children. I won’t go into too much detail (you can check their website for more info), but the main talking points are that smartphones:

  • Are changing childhood, essentially taking them from the “outside world” to the screen.
  • Are addictive. Well, we know this first-hand, don’t we? Wait Until 8th sites research, too.
  • Are an academic distraction. Again, an obvious point. They interfere with homework and they should be banned from classrooms if they aren’t already.
  • Impair sleep. No one likes a grouchy, sleep-deprived tween. Most of my friends who have negotiated this age have a rule such as “no phones after 10pm.” Sign me up.
  • Interfere with relationships. We parents understand this first-hand as well.
  • Increase the risk of anxiety and depression. To me, this is one of the most important factors. Cyberbullying and the constant fear of being left out can cause undue angst and insecurities.
  • Expose children to sexual content. Yup. It’s everywhere and it’s happened to all of us. Google a random phrase or image and up pops an unwanted, sometimes disturbing image or video.
  • Technology executives from such digital giants as Google, Apple, eBay, and Yahoo claim to wait until their kids are age 14 before handing over smartphones.

The Austin mothers who created this movement have made the pledge together. Their kids are friends. They share the same school and community. They’re in it as their own, cohesive village. And they’re having luck spreading Wait Until 8th across the country with several schools and groups taking the pledge.

For about 48 hours I was all-in, ready to commit to this “pledge” and I began reaching out to friends. To my village. Who said, “Wait…”

It’s my personality to jump feet-first if I feel something in my heart or in my gut. Luckily, I have my husband and friends to balance my impulsivity. While some parents were ready to jump in with me, others researched and contemplated. They debated with spouses and children. In the end, many of them decided against it. And then I bailed.

It’s impossible to take the Wait Until 8th pledge if your go-to group of parents isn’t all-in. If your child’s best friend, or any good friend for that matter, has a phone, and your child is exposed to it, then all bets are off. In fact, if the content your child is seeing comes from another kid’s phone, you lose all control. My friends were divided about making the pledge and ultimately we couldn’t commit. But, we’re still together in our beliefs and values. And first and foremost we made the decision in what we believe to be the best interests of our children.

As anyone reading this knows, the tween years are perhaps the hardest to navigate for both kids and parents. Our children need our support as they experience hormones and body changes while dealing with social issues and peer pressure. What if we made the Wait Until 8th pledge – a promise to our kids and our community – only to find the need to break it a year later? “Need” is subjective, of course, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which we would change our minds. And what kind of example would that set for our kids? If we break promises, why shouldn’t they?

The last thing our kids need during these years is to feel alone, isolated and out of the loop. Unfortunately, cell phones come very much into play during these years, and if your child is the only one without a phone, chances are they he or she will feel a sense of being left out. I won’t take the chance that my kid will be singled out because she doesn’t have a phone. Instead, I will pivot and adjust. And I will arm her with common sense, kindness and communication.

With the Wait Until 8th pledge off the table with my neighborhood parents, we will find our own way. Some kids will get “regular” cell phones at 5th grade graduation. Others will get smartphones. Still more will get one or the other at a later date. Whenever the time comes, I’ll be ready (or as ready as we are with anything as a parent). You can be, too. Here’s what we all should keep in mind:

  1. Our kids will fail. I want them to, in fact. We all should. The previous generation who created the “everyone’s a winner!” (eye roll) mentality did all parents (and the workforce) a disservice. Who in life hasn’t failed? We fail. We are embarrassed. We learn. Our kids need to learn and there are some things we cannot teach.
  2. We should be talking to our kids. Using sexual content as an example, if we know they might stumble on it, then we need to address it (beforehand, preferably). If we’re embarrassed about that, imagine how embarrassed our kids will be when they see All-The-Things-I-Won’t-Mention that they might see! And then imagine that they very well won’t want to come to you to ask about it. One unfortunate event could cause them guilt, shame, embarrassment, and confusion. We live in a crazy world and it’s best your kids learn that from you.
  3. Let’s trust our kids. How can we ask them to trust us if we don’t put our trust in them? We’ve worked day and night for several years to guide our kids and to give them the tools they’ll need to navigate this life. Hopefully during that time we’ve talked openly with them about a range of issues and in turn, hopefully they have asked questions and have listened. We’ve arrived at this turning point in their lives where they’ll be without us more than ever. Home alone here and there. Walking places that perhaps before were deemed too far. They’ll make choices. And if they choose wrong, we have to hope we’ve done our jobs and that they’ll come to us with problems and questions that arise.
  4. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Initially, I’ll give my tween a phone. A regular, cell phone with call and text capabilities without the data plan for Internet use. That way they can use a phone for its originally intended use; to communicate. We’ll navigate the next few years and decide, together, when she is ready and responsible enough for a Smartphone. It won’t be my mandate or a promise I’ve made to others. It will be a conversation with my daughter.
  5. Keep the conversation going. A cell phone is only the catalyst for many discussions we’ll have in the years to come. Whether our kids stumble on pictures of a party they weren’t invited to, experience a misunderstanding because of a text, are the target of cyberbullying, or simply see disturbing content that they can’t un-see, we want to be there for them. Talk. Always talk, and always listen.

For us, for my tween, we’ve decided to get her a phone that has no data plan when she graduates from 5th grade. Calling and texting will be the priority as she explores our town square and visits friends from school with newly earned independence. Smartphones are, no doubt, in her future, but at a time and date yet to be determined. I know in both my heart and my gut that we made the right decision for my family. I’d love to hear your thoughts on cell phones and what decisions you’ll make for your family. Please share. Our village only grows stronger that way.

Originally published on Moms Anonymous, a site for Parents of Tweens

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Author: Holly

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