I have a confession. I try so hard not to be a judgmental person, but I especially aim to not be a judgmental parent. And yet I have been judging a lot lately. In my defense, I think it’s because I’m scared, and there are few forces as powerful as a parent scared for her child’s safety and wellbeing. And witnessing the smartphone use of so many of my middle schooler’s peers has me more than just a little concerned.
It’s not just the big things, like safety and mental health; it’s the little things, that when you think about it, aren’t really that little. The distractibility and lack of adequate social skills aren’t exactly factors to shrug off when we’re talking about our tweens. The ability to focus, be kind, have empathy, and engage fully are qualities that should matter greatly to us all when we consider the hands in which we are leaving our world.
So let me back up. We haven’t given our 7th grader a cell phone yet. She uses an ipod that, when connected to wifi, she can use to text her friends in their group chat, play music, look things up for homework assignments, play a few random games from time to time, and even access her Google classrooms if she forgot to plug in her laptop again.
It took some time to get used to the fact that she had not only her own computer (thank you, Grandma, for sending her your old one!) but also her own portable device. But I relaxed knowing that, number one, she’s a super responsible kid, and number two, she didn’t have access to any social media apps. That, for me, was the most important thing I wanted to avoid. We’ll talk more about that later.
I’ve been comfortable with her technological involvement this year; she is able to interact with her friends when she’s at home and uses good boundaries so she isn’t attached to her device, texting all night; she is able to navigate her online assignments independently, and she’s clearly the most competent operator of the family’s Apple Everything. But compared to all the other kids, it’s nothing.
Almost all of them have their own phones (and not flip phones, mind you) that they bring along to school. It blows my mind that kids are allowed to congregate during recess, huddled over their iPhones. I try not to keep a running tab about which friends are allowed to be on Instagram and Snapchat and which friends aren’t, but it worries me when I hear stories about her classmates interacting with their “crushes” and “mean girls” in that shark pool.
Apparently kids snake their earbuds through their sleeves so they can listen to music or whatever during class, and even during after-school activities. How is this a thing, you guys?? As for what I’ve witnessed myself, even the best, nicest kids typically whip out their phones the second they get into my car. They play games on their phones while watching movies in my house (in clear violation of my “NO TWO SCREENS” rule) until I politely request that they stop. At parties, they wander around like zombies with their faces in a screen. And my question is this: WHY THE HELL ARE WE LETTING THEM?
I think it likely comes down to the path of least resistance, which all parents are guilty of taking from time to time. I certainly am! But I feel like, with the smartphone issue, it needs to be different. There is too much at stake. Why are we allowing our children to ignore people right in front of their faces to pursue online interaction? Why are we comfortable with the fact that they are clearly addicted to their phones, mindlessly reaching for them whenever they have a nanosecond of “down time?”
And I think that’s where things get tricky. Because WE are also addicted. I am, for sure. My daughter and I were reading a few nights ago when she left to go downstairs for a glass of water. When presented with 45 seconds of quiet time, I instantly reached for my phone. And in that moment, I thought, “I miss the days when I would have just had to sit here and wait for her to come back upstairs.” Why am I not capable of doing that? Likely because of the same phenomenon written about in the compelling article about why we can’t even read a book without pausing to check in on our phones for the requisite Dopamine hit. The same thing that has me longing for the days when I didn’t have to battle the urge to take advantage of a stoplight to do something “productive” like check my email. It’s stressful. And the kind of stress that comes from that constant divided attention and distractibility and overwhelm is going to destroy our health. Is that really what we want for our children?
So many of us have turned to mindfulness books or courses, meditation and yoga practices, because we don’t remember how to just BE anymore. To be aware of our surroundings. To be aware of our bodies. To be aware of our companions.
If we suck at it this badly, how can we possibly expect our children, our CHILDREN, to navigate it with any degree of grace or competence? And what is going to happen when these kids enter the work force, when they are actually in charge? It makes me shudder.
I know this sounds preachy, I do. Preachy, hysterical, overreactive, or maybe just more of the same, another drop in the bucket of the chorus of parents who are concerned about screens and social media. Except I am not hearing much from that chorus these days. It’s a rare conversation I have with another parent that validates my deep feelings of concern. What I want to say is, “You guys! Why don’t we just all agree that our kids aren’t going to have smart phones?” Then our bookish, history-loving, sensitive kids will have one less thing to feel left out over as they eat their beet and goat cheese salads at lunch. Then we can keep them ALL safe!
But I am not convinced that most parents are interested in doing that. And I’m not sure why. Because, YES, we want to know where they are, right? We want them to be able to contact us! (Cough, FLIP PHONES) And then there’s the simple business of all their friends have one, and . . . is that the only reason? Because, quite frankly, that’s bullshit.
So I’m going to leave you with two videos that took my breath away. I have spent this whole post talking about the little things like our kids having constant divided attention (which will inevitably lead to chronic stress and a whole host of other body chemistry issues, but I digress) and the fact that maybe they are going to be clueless assholes who stand around with their phone out instead of having meaningful conversations with their best friends.
But let’s get more uncomfortable. Let’s talk about their emotional safety, their mental health. Is there anything more important than that? And if not, why do we let them have these devices?
I watched this a few months ago, and I began sobbing uncontrollably. I made my daughter watch it with me.
I watched this one on FB yesterday– it’s super short, less than 5 minutes. It’s called, “What is Social Media Doing to Our Daughters?”
Take away line: “If everybody isn’t on board, how are we going to pull this off?”
So I’m asking you to think about this today: Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we all banding together to keep our kids smartphone-free in middle school or even longer? How can we set better limits, for them, and for ourselves? It’s going to be hard; it already has been hard, for our family. But it’s so worth it. There are some great ideas for advocacy in these videos– but it starts with one hard step: SAYING NO.
Talk to me– how do you feel about smartphones and social media with tweens and young teens? What is your policy? Why do you or don’t you let your kids have a phone? What limits do you set? What do their friends do?
Please, let’s help each other. I just know we can do better.