5 Reasons I Am Real Hesitant to Hand My Tween a Smartphone
I’m a mom parenting in the digital age, and to be very honest with you, many days I’d love to move off the grid. There is a high probability that you are reading this piece on your smartphone. The irony of sharing these thoughts on a digital parenting platform that reaches readers through social media is not at all lost on me.
I am pro technology. I am pro social media. I am pro use-all-the-apps. I use Venmo. I love Instagram. I can’t live without Instacart. I am well-versed in life online and its many benefits.
I am not what you would describe as a crunchy mom. I am not a paranoid mom. I would not call myself a helicopter mom.
Rather, I am just a mom in the year 2023 looking around and wondering, “am I the only one thinking we should stop and think a little more before we hand every tween kid in America a smartphone?”
If you are reading this ready to argue with me about why your kid has a phone, I encourage you to read the full piece. If you are reading this looking for me to give you an answer about what to do at your house, you can stop reading right now!
Spoiler alert – I have no answers.
I just know that I am concerned about the idea of kids running around with smartphones, but I also feel somewhat powerless to stop it. I understand this is the world we are living in, and I know they have to learn to navigate it.
My question centers around whether tweens are READY and prepared to navigate the world of smartphones.
The Meme That Started It All
You probably saw the Adam Grant graphic this week that was circulating on the internet in reference to this conversation. Some moms agreed with it; some moms questioned it. Some moms jumped immediately to the defensive, saying that it is yet another topic in parenting that is loaded with shame and divisiveness. I saw “but my kid rides the bus,” and “but he has to be able to text me from school” and so much more. As with most things, it is always true that we know our children and circumstances the best and that most parenting decisions are not black and white. I am not judging anyone who has already handed their child a smartphone.
In fact, my own children have access to iPads at home. One of my kids also has an Apple Watch.
I am just telling you all that I have LOTS of questions and hesitations.
Right now the whole thing feels like a high speed train barreling down the tracks without concern for the consequences around the corner and THAT is what concerns me most.
Should tweens have smartphones? Honestly, I don’t know. But here are the reasons I am so hesitant to hand one over to my children.
Kids Are Smart
I know that you can put all sorts of protective measures on a phone. I understand that you can monitor them. I know about the apps that will alert parents to certain language or risks. I know that you can put mechanisms in place to “stop” the things you don’t want (social media, apps being downloaded, etc). I also know you can have ALL of the conversations with kids about boundaries and what’s allowed and what’s not. I understand there is an element of trust at play here. Some of us were raised with no trust and that method can backfire. However, it is hard when you can see the severity of consequences from a mile away, almost as if you want to proactively protect your kids from their potentially poor choices.
Kids are smart. I have watched my own 12-year-old undo certain measures I had in place on the iPad (see, I am NOT anti-technology!) I was “not allowed” to wear tube tops in 1998, so you know what I did? Changed once I left the house for the evening (sorry, mom and dad!) Perhaps the fact that we know kids are going to do things behind our back is the best argument for just letting them have a smartphone, but the real hesitation here is the fact that I am not convinced all of these protective measures parents claim they have are actually working. So let’s pretend I were to buy my tween a smartphone and do all of the “right things” when it comes to safety measures. Would that be enough?
I am not sure. I genuinely do not know. I still have concerns.
Brain Science and Impulsivity
The reality of a 12 or 13-year-old is that their brain is still developing. That is a fact, and it’s not one we can argue. Tweens are literally not equipped to make great decisions regularly yet. A 12 or 13-year-old cannot legally drive, vote, buy cigarettes or alcohol. Based on my very quick internet search, you are not legally allowed to have a job at that age either. In fact, many parents I know are just starting to leave their kids home alone for brief periods of time around the tween stage. Read that again. As parents we are still questioning if 12 is “old enough” to stay home alone at night BUT many of us are handing them smartphones, which are a gateway to, well, all kinds of things.
I am not a physician or psychologist, but I do know the brain is still developing at this age. This is a formative time in their lives where they are learning about judgment, good decision making and so much more. 12 and 13-year-olds are notorious for poor decision making. They often talk before they think. Tweens aren’t great at anticipating social fallout or consequences. Even people that are far smarter than me cannot say for sure the long term consequences of screen time, but they CAN say confidently that these devices and social media do affect young brains in ways they don’t fully know yet. A lot of tweens are easily peer pressured into irreversible decisions. Many times these poor decisions happen in the context of a group. Perhaps one child is capable of making great decisions but a friend who they admire suggests an idea and BAM – before you know it, things have spiraled out of control. Even very responsible children can get entangled in bad decision making (both with regards to smartphones and real life). In the case of smartphones, group think can lead smart kids to some questionable choices. And I get it; they are kids, they are curious and they are experimenting.
Everything that happens on the internet is permanent and traceable. Is that something that most tweens can handle?
I am not sure. I genuinely do not know. Even with having all the talks, I still have concerns.
Consequences at School and With the Law
This is another fact of modern day parenting: schools are indeed getting involved in situations that involve social media / technology and kids, even if it happens after school hours or on the weekend. My own children have sat with administration more than once at different schools over things that transpired in their grades. One involved a sexually suggestive video that was sent to a group chat; the other involved bullying. I don’t think either of these is terrifically uncommon in 2023. Maybe we should be collectively asking ourselves about these devices and what we need to do to make sure that ALL of our kids understand the permanence and severity of captured content. I know that I am extremely relieved my 8th grade journey is not captured on the internet somewhere. I thank the heavens above daily that we didn’t have these devices. Shredding hard copies of disposable camera pictures is enough trauma for me, thank you very much!
One poor choice on one of these devices and your life takes an entirely different direction. To me, that is a devastating thought. More than that, things that kids think are funny in the moment can be federal sex crimes. No, I am not exaggerating and no, I am not trying to be alarmist. And if you think kids are not sending explicit content back and forth, well, unfortunately they are.
Do tweens think about these consequences as they fire off videos and Snapchats?
“But Won’t They Be Left Out?”
I keep hearing tangentially that kids get left out if they don’t have phones. Left out of what? Group chats where kids are using their power to add people and delete them just as fast? Left out of a birthday party that requires an adult to drive them there? Left out of sending inappropriate content back and forth? Really, I am asking.
Middle school is not easy, but if my child does not want to be friends with someone because of what they own or don’t own, we have bigger conversations to have. This is where some consensus from parents around what inclusion looks like would go a long way. Spoiler alert – it’s not leaving someone out of a birthday party because they don’t have a smartphone yet.
Middle school was rough for all of us and that was before smartphones, so to me I am not sure a smartphone is the sole cause of – OR FIX FOR – kids being kind and inclusive.
Do I want my child to have a smartphone? Not really. Actually, hell no if I am being perfectly honest. Do I want my child to feel “less than” at this formative age? Of course not. So will I cave? I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know.
While I suppose you can take a smartphone back once you’ve handed one to your kids, this is a parenting decision that feels somewhat final. Once a tween has access to a smartphone – with whatever measures you put in place – they are operating in a whole new realm. I recently stumbled on this piece from a parent that is a decade past making this decision, and the only reassuring fact is that the parent STILL questions if they made the right call.
I think we can all agree that we are all doing our best and trying to make the smartest decision for our kids. Sometimes we make a decision and a while later wish we had done something different. However, the data (both hard and anecdotal) seems to show that MOST tweens do, in fact, have a smartphone. I think what would make me feel better as a parent in the year 2023 is if we could all collectively tap the brakes and have some honest conversations around this topic before it is too late.
I am personally real hesitant to hand my tween a smartphone. I realize that this is my choice and decision, and I acknowledge that no one is taking that power away.
However, as a parent to tweens right now, that does not seem to be the popular decision. It is extremely hard to have very valid concerns about these devices while also worrying that your child is becoming a social outcast because they are literally the only one without a phone.
And to think that the “must have device” of my childhood was a Discman. My parents had a much easier decision to make!