Kids + Screens: Smartphones are worth the wait

  • Susan McNamara

  • Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the Gazette
Published: 5/21/2019 4:17:46 PM

Reader conundrum: My daughter is in elementary school, and I can’t believe it, but I am already being pressured to get her a smartphone. Sometimes by her, and sometimes by other parents. I keep hearing that “everyone” her age has one now and that without one she will be left out. This is not a choice I am ready to make for her right now. I think she is too young. But I also see that this is how things are and that maybe she will be left out without one. What do you think?

Feeling forced

I think you have an enormous choice before you. One that all parents will encounter at some point. One that requires a lot of thoughtfulness as opposed to a reaction based in fear or outside pressures. Like you, many parents are struggling over this decision; feeling “forced” into something that may not feel right. At least not yet. It puts me in mind of the parent who once told me that the decision to get his young daughter a smartphone felt like the equivalent to him of her losing her virginity. Whether you feel this strongly about the issue, or even whether this analogy resonates with you or not, in truth, what we are talking about here is no small thing. Let’s take some time now to see why that is.

You as the parent 

As a parent in the age of technology, a big part of your job is growing an inner savvy and discernment around how to protect your daughter from what is beyond her ability to handle. This is not easy to do in a world where the drive for our children to have smartphones is being brought to bear on younger and younger ages. What are you to do when the outside pressures are pushing for something that does not feel right to you? How will you know when the time is right?

Given that you, and you alone, are the guardian of your daughter’s childhood, it is essential that you check in with yourself. Way down deep inside. Separate from the pressures. Separate from your daughter’s nagging. What are your concerns? Set aside time with yourself, and a partner if you have one. List out your fears. And then, scrutinize them. Sometimes as parents, we project our own insecurities and childhood wounds onto our kids, believing they will suffer in the same ways that we did. For instance, does the fear that you have around your daughter being left out have anything to do with what you yourself experienced as a child? When we can separate our experiences from our child’s, we put ourselves in the best position possible of making decisions based on what they need, versus what we are afraid will happen.

Socialization and your daughter

The screen technologies bring a big challenge to our lives as they trigger our most vulnerable affiliation needs. We all want to belong. We all want our children to belong. This is a good and necessary impulse. However, one of the great choices that we face with our children and the smartphones is, at what cost to that belonging? In other words, instead of assuming that it will only be negative socially without the phone, have you thought through some of the social negatives if she has a phone? Consider doing a cost-benefit around what this choice would mean for her by including a more total picture. This as opposed to what some parents do by acquiescing to the purchase of the device because they have only looked at their fears around what would happen to their child without one.

If we are to do right by our children, we must embrace both sides. This includes what is being lost. And a big part of what is being lost is healthy socialization. Current research tells us that one of the strongest predictors of our children’s success, health and happiness are their social skills. It only makes sense then that this is something we want to support and foster in our kids as best as we can. Your fear around your daughter missing out socially is a good parenting instinct. Intuitively you are sensing the downside if your daughter is not socialized well. That brings us to the terrible predicament we find ourselves in over the smartphones. On the one hand, recent research and personal observation tell us that the screens are interfering with sound social skill development. And on the other hand, the “reality” is that this is how many children are now socializing.

Therefore, when it comes to whether or not to get your daughter a smartphone, some hard questions have to be asked. Questions like, what are the un-examined downsides and costs associated with this choice? What social problems will be created through her use? This is not something you ask yourself once. Instead, this becomes an orientation where you let these questions work on you; without pressing for an answer right away.

This might sound strange, but the truth is, as a species, we are brand new to having to make these kinds of decisions for our children. That means that we are part of the generations learning how to approach this in ways that best serve the real needs of our children. That means that for a very long time, having more questions than answers is a very adaptive response. It means that we have to develop some comfort in the exploration, while still choosing in a timely way for our children.

Another way to ask these questions is to find parents whose children are several years older than your daughter. Ask them what it has been like for their child to have a smartphone. I can tell you directly from personal experience around working with college students that they regularly speak on how much does not happen for them socially because their friends and family are more interested in their phones than they are them. It has been incredibly sad for me to witness how many of my students do not have a truly satisfying social life due to the presence of someone’s smartphone taking up the space that should be going to people.

The wait

Here is one last thing to consider when you are thinking about making this choice. If a smartphone is “right” now, it will still be right one week, one month, or even years from now. But if it is not right now, and she gets involved with it, it will never be right for her. As a parent, you are charged with guiding your child in the midst of these new and sometimes overwhelming technological choices. Many of which, when used age-inappropriately, can bring harm to our children’s growing sense of what it means to be in relationship with others. Therefore, what if you gave yourself a waiting period? A time when nothing was done. A set period where it was not up for consideration.

While not necessarily easy to do, a waiting period gives you the opportunity to let more of the facts come in. And while this can make sense on paper, sometimes as parents we can fear this place because we are so afraid to disappoint. We are so afraid that our children will freak out. We are so afraid, in fact, that we sometimes let ourselves be pressured into the wrong things. Will our children sometimes be disappointed or upset by the choices we make on their behalf? For sure. This is OK. As a matter of fact, it is more than OK. For if your daughter is never disappointed or upset with the choices you make for her, likely you are missing something. Or maybe indulging the wrong thing. Or maybe being driven by some fear that leaves you unwilling to draw a necessary line.

Finally, here is a resource I think you may find beneficial. There’s a movement, 20,000 parents strong, called Wait Until 8th; a pledge that parents can make committing to wait until at least 8th grade before purchasing their child a smartphone. Many parents link into this for their own families and then go on to let other parents know what they are doing. This level of support and commitment has the potential to take away the “everyone else is doing it” pressure. Once this is out of the equation, you now have the space to make a solid decision that will support the very best in your daughter’s emerging social skills.

Susan McNamara is a certified holistic health counselor and holds a masters degree in counseling psychology. As an adjunct professor at Westfield State University, she explores the impact technology has on students’ health and well-being as part of an overall curriculum on stress reduction.

To submit a technology-
related parenting conundrum to her, email her at
thefarmatavalon@
hotmail.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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