As parents, we are navigating unchartered territories.
Our parents couldn’t pave the way for this, and our grandparents can’t serve up time-tested advice on the issues parents today face.
We’re on our own.
We also don’t have long-term studies to guide us. There is no one-size-fits-all certainty.
We are just winging it, desperately trying to manage our kids’ use of cell phones and electronics.
We can all agree on one thing: If we mess up screen time, our kids will suffer. Not much pressure there, right?
So where do we even begin?
Here is what we know so far: People form addictions to smart phones. We crave the validation and instant gratification of social media, gaming, and Googling. Dependence on smart phones can produce addictive brain responses similar to drug, alcohol or gambling.
Giving our kids phones, at any age, is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
The more time we spend staring at screens, lost in mindless videos or gaming, the less time we connect in person, the less time we have to exercise and be outdoors, and the more our family time is interrupted.
Cell phones make it easy to access disturbing images and informationthat can affect our kids, too.
Makes you want to wrap your kids in bubble wrap and keep them safe forever.
But there’s good news.
The upside is that smart phones keep kids connected and engaged.
They have access to ideas and worlds that their parents (and even older siblings) couldn’t have imagined. The world is smaller, the possibility of careers and interests are endless. Kids who in previous generations may have felt alienated at school are able to connect with like-minded kids worlds away.
Parents can be in quick and easy contact with their kids throughout the day. In these unpredictable times, knowing your kids are a phone call or a text away gives parents (and kids) a sense of connection and relief.
This juxtaposition of good and bad, sinister and inclusion, fear and connection is an awful lot to handle for parents who haven’t been shown a way to parent in the time of cell phones.
As a result, it’s tempting to employ absolutes and certainties so we don’t feel overwhelmed by the topic
That is exactly what a group of concerned parents did when they developed a Wait Until 8th Grade pledge.
These parents rallied together, pledging not to give their kids cell phones until 8th grade, in the hopes that elementary school kids could feel more comfortable knowing they weren’t the only kids without cell phones.
By doing this, they hope kids will sleep better, be less distracted, and less likely to fall victim to cyber bullying.
But 8th grade is an arbitrary age. And nothing is that simple.
Experts agree that there is little proof that smartphones are as dangerous as parents believe.
Parents and children alike need to be mindful of their cell phone usage.
But this is an important note: Distraction, alienation, and lack of sleep are not due to cell phones — but due to a lack of monitoring the cell phone usage.
There is a false sense of security that comes from any hard and fast truth.
By steadfastly sticking to an arbitrary age, rather than considering individualized needs, responsibilities, and levels of maturities, parents can fall into a false sense of security.
Cell phones aren’t the problem, bad habits are.
Waiting until 8th grade doesn’t ensure your child is safe. Waiting until 8th grade doesn’t mean your child is safe from bullying or online images. Waiting until 8th grade won’t ensure your child will not sleep with the phone or that it will not be used at meal time.
It won’t mean your child understands cell phone etiquette.
The 8th-grade rule may, in fact, mean your child is not protected or savvy.
It can mean your child is years behind peers in knowing how to handle themselves online. Your child may be fumbling to remember newfound rules at a time when peer pressure and independence collide.
Every child and every family has different needs.
For some parents, not allowing their children to have a cell phone until 8th grade is the right choice.
Others accept the challenge of monitoring screen time in their younger kids as well as their teenagers. They accept that creating boundaries, enforcing consequences and talking endlessly about internet safety is exhausting some days. They accept that mistakes will be made, that there are no guarantees now or later.
Parents who give their kids cell phones before 8th grade will have to engage earlier in discussions of what is and isn’t appropriate. They will have to talk more with their kids about being kind and being inclusive.
Parenting by committee is a slippery slope.
Instead of letting each family decide on their own what is best for their child, an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality is born.
Will we argue the 8th Grade PLedge like we do about Breast feeding vs Bottle feeding? Does childhood cell phone usage now come with guilt and elitism?
The last thing any parent needs is another standard to compare ourselves to.
Parenting is hard enough. The last thing we need to do is to add more stress, more self-doubt, and more pressure on ourselves.
Our responsibilities as parents are to our kids and to our families.
Our responsibilities to our kids do not include keeping up appearances or making ourselves look good to other parents.
Proponents of this movement cite that Bill Gates won’t allow his children to have cell phones until the age of 14. I applaud his decision. Undoubtedly, Bill and Melinda Gates came to that decision with a tremendous amount of thought, based on their own family’s situation and lifestyle.
That being said, there is one thing I’ve never been more sure of in my life: the Gates family looks nothing like mine.
Bill Gates probably isn’t frantically trying to get ahold of a child who missed the bus or who didn’t arrive home after school because she forgot a book at school. Bill Gates’s child may not find himself separated from his friends at the Friday night football game.
Bill Gates’s child may never be locked out of the house. Bill Gate’s child may not be on travel sports teams and need call to set up a ride home.
Bill and Malinda Gates are not divorced. Their child doesn’t need to keep in touch with one parent when spending the weekend with another.
Bill Gates is far from the litmus test of what is best for every American family.
It seems the average family is in a real conundrum. One-size-fits-all rules simply do not work.
The modern ‘free range’ childhood may require a phone. Sometimes the easiest way to give our kids the freedom of an old-fashioned childhood is to give them a cell phone and allow them to check in with their whereabouts.
My son texts me on his way home from school to let me know he stopped uptown for ice cream with his friends. He is allowed to roam around town, trek through nearby woods and parks.
Without the ability to check in, I’d naturally limit his autonomy. I want to know he is safe. That being the case, he’d miss out on outdoor fun, bike rides, connecting with friends and much needed time away to learn to trust himself.
Cell phones can be a modern-day SOS call to parents when kids find themselves in unsafe social situations.
Another benefit of a cell phone is that kids can easily call or text when they find themselves in uncomfortable situations.
Develop a secret code, a harmless phrase your child can text to you if they found themselves in an uncomfortable situation.
More than once, I’ve picked my child up because they were able to text me a secret SOS. Was that worth having a cell phone in the 6th grade? You bet it was.
But how do we walk the fine line of fear and empowerment for our kids when it comes to giving them cell phones? Here are 7 guidelines to help:
- Step up and parent your kids.
You know your kids better than anyone.
Talk with them. Set boundaries. Give explicit expectations. Have consequences if they do not follow your rules.
Monitor screen time and monitor usage. Make sure your kids have plenty of outside play time, plenty of reading time and have plenty of time to be kids. Have kids put their phones in a designated basket when they are at home. You get to decide if your kids are allowed to have phones in their bedrooms and at what time they must hand their phones over to you each evening.
Create this routine and model healthy phone usage yourself. This takes discipline and repetition but the payoff is worth it.
Your kids will develop sensible and respectful attitudes towards the cell phone.They will not fall prey to using cell phones to replace real relationships.
- Get in the habit of talking to your kids about the pitfalls of phone usage.
Teach them about tone when writing comments, teach them about how to spot a friend who is in trouble and what is appropriate to post and what is not.
Talk about consent and social media, who you may take photos of, whose photos you may share, what to do if you get an inappropriate photo, what to do if someone is being a troll or rude online.
You can’t expect to hand a child a phone in 8th grade and have them absorb years-worth of subtle rules overnight.
- Understand your child’s development.
You are your child’s first teacher. As kids age, they naturally develop the need to detach from their parents and place an emphasis on their friends.
Waiting until age 13 or 14 to teach your child how to manage their phone usage leaves you at a disadvantage. You will have less time to form your child’s perceptions and habits.
Why hand this power over to their friends? Teach them what matters to you. Instill in them your values. Give them the skills to navigate the internet in safety.
Trust them so they can learn to trust and be trusted.
Human nature is human nature. People will always crave what they can’t have. Your child will have access to phones. Why give them the opportunity to make having a phone a wedge between you?
Why not use the cell phone as a tool to open conversations, teaching opportunities and trust? Many kids are well equipped to responsibly handle having a cell phone as they start middle school.
- Be flexible.
The problem with signing a contract with a group who doesn’t know your family is that it is simply too rigid. Signing a pledge while your child is in 4th or 5th grade, promising to not give your child a cell phone hems you in.
Situations change. Feelings change. Viewpoints change. Why put yourself in a position where you’ll have to worry about the judgment of others who don’t know you or your situation?
Be resolute to parent your children to the best of your abilities.
You do not need to be resolute to promises that are arbitrary and do not take into account the individuality of a family.
What might be right for one child, may not be right for another, even within a family unit.
Give yourself the space to grow and evolve alongside your kids. Parenting is an exercise in flexibility.
- Model healthy phone behavior yourself.
Your kids will learn more from you than they will from not being given a phone before a milestone age.
Put down your phone and talk with your kids.
Do not allow phones to interrupt dinners or family time. Do not have the cell phone in your bedroom at night. Exercise. Get outside. Connect with the family.
Use the phone to keep in touch with your friends and family, not to fill the void of boredom.
If you are not responsible with the cell phone, your kids probably won’t be either. Irresponsible cell phone behavior knows no age limit. Shore up your own cell phone usage.
- Familiarize yourself with the positives.
The bottom line is that children these days connect through cell phones and social media.
Projecting your childhood onto a different generation is futile. The cell phone, the internet isn’t going away.
Connecting with peers has always been an essential part of growing up. Cell phones undoubtedly play a part in this generation’s connections. It doesn’t have to be negative. Celebrate their friendships.
Celebrate their ability to look out for others. Celebrate their generation. Cell phones aren’t for shaming.
- Trust yourself.
Instead of spinning your wheels enforcing pledges, use your time and energy to teach your kids responsible use of their phones.
Rachel Flynn, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine who studies the impact of media on children, said parents should think about content and context even more than age when deciding if they should give their children a phone.
The age at which you get a cell phone doesn’t predict safety. Education, monitoring and limiting screen time can.
T-Ann Pierce is a life coach who helps men, women and young adults learn the life hacks needed to feel empowered and in control of their lives. Life is short. Why feel stuck? To contact T-Ann, email her at [email protected] or call her at 847.730.7531.
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