Pt4 - Smartphones for kids and teenagers - a guide for parents (Part Four)
Parents have been given no compass, map or guidebook to navigate this technological age. However, some organisations and parent-led initiatives have taken this on to help parents make decisions about how and when to give their children or teenagers smartphones.
I have no magic solution to give you, all I can do is to share and elevate the organisations who are keeping this debate ongoing. This year I attended an enlightening conference talk by Wait until 8th Campaign, an parent-led organisation in the US encouraging parents to delay giving their children a smartphone until the eighth grade (age 12-13).
Whilst this age bracket is not the be-all and end-all of solutions, I found the talk helped me to understand what the concerns are around using smartphones, and how delaying might help parents to prepare their kids for how to responsibly use smartphones.
Here are my key takeaways from what was discussed. I appreciate this is an enormous blog post, so I have split it into 4 sections. I am reporting back on what I learned, however if you are interested in my views I have written my perspective and caveats to the advice shared below.
Part One - What's the problem?
Part Two - What can parents do to set boundaries?
Part Three - Q&A of relevant questions.
Part Four - My own perspective and caveats.
Part FOUR - My personal thoughts and caveats on the Wait until 8th campaign
Firstly, I believe that organisations like Wait until 8th are commendable and facilitate essential discussions between parents about how to keep kids safe online. I think that parents banding together (to wait until age 12-13) is an effective antidote to the “all my friends have a smartphone” narrative, as parents can be assured that other parents are not giving in sooner. It also releases parents from the guilt and concern that their child is being left out or behind their peers.
Now for the caveats!
There is an over-reliance on a few studies and anecdotal stories as being “proof” of the impact of smartphones on young people. Links such as this take a long time to prove fully in research, therefore the studies should not be ignored, nor should they be taken as gospel, so to speak!
I agree that it makes logical sense to delay smartphone use until kids are older (hopefully delaying the parenting minefield of children and teens accessing apps, social media and the internet). However, it doesn't account for kids accessing content at school or on their friend’s phones.
Therefore, it is also important to have open conversations with your kids about what to do if a difficult situation arises (even if your child doesn't own a phone), rather than expecting that after reaching a certain age they will know what to do.
We can also help educate children to talk to parents or teachers if they’re concerned about their friends who may be viewing inappropriate content, talking to strangers, cyberbullying or are concerned with their friends’ mental health.
2) I wholly believe it is important to explain to your kids why you’re not giving them a smartphone yet, and listening to their reasons for wanting a smartphone.
I would discourage enforcing new rules because ‘you say so’. Remember, children might not understand or have reached the same conclusions you have, and may feel as though you are punishing them for wrongdoing they haven’t even committed (especially if you are taking away access they are used to having).
Growing up in the 90's/00's I remember first using the messaging platform MSN at about age 14, I remember my mum had read an article in the newspaper about a girl of my age who had been kidnapped by an adult that she had met on MSN. My mum confronted me and her message was loud and clear “I won’t let you use that platform because you will go and meet grown men and end up being kidnapped.” To which of course, I was completely baffled at what I felt was an accusation, and rolled my eyes.
I remember feeling that A) mum doesn’t have confidence in me to make sensible judgements, the same way that I don’t go walking off with strangers in the supermarket and B) that she didn't believe me when I said I was only talking to people I knew.
The reality for me was that these were my friends at school I was chatting to, and the handful of times a stranger tried to add me as a friend, I blocked them and messaged my friends saying “Some weirdo named XYZ told me I’m cute. He’s blocked now. Do not add him.” So I probably had a bit more savoir-faire than she thought I had.
Both children and adults alike are lured into dangerous situations via social media and ‘catfishing’ (a person presenting as someone else online). So there needs to be more advice given to young people using these platforms, not just a complete ban or total freedom. There needs to be awareness of the dangers, and what to do*.
*Wait until 8th also advocates educating both children and parents on using technology safely, and is developing an online curriculum for parents and kids to work through before they are given a smartphone, which sounds like an excellent idea to me!
3) Altogether, I support the recommendation to limit access to apps and devices until an appropriate age. On top of that, I would want to empower teenagers to think critically for themselves, identify suspicious behaviour the same as they would getting on a bus and going into town with their friends.
I empathise now with the position my mum was in, and I’m grateful for her wanting to keep me safe from online predators. At the time the risks and threats online were barely known, and discoverable only through tragic stories on the news.
The internet and social media are not all bad. There are a lot of good messages about inclusivity, youth activism and anti-bullying messages from YouTubers sharing their own stories of their mental health challenges and how they were bullied at school, and this helps their viewers to know they are not alone.
However, in order to access the ‘good’ things, there’s a mountain of inappropriate content to navigate through, and it is a hard task for parents to truly keep out the ‘bad’ stuff.
It is hopefully easier for millennial parents to empathise with their children who want to watch silly Tik Tok videos that their friends have made, whilst also being aware of the risks of saying ‘yes’ to that.
As a parent, it's important to remind yourself that there is no guidebook to make a perfect judgement call in every situation on these rapidly changing parenting challenges, that you may have to set different rules for each child, and to forgive yourself if you need to admit “OK, that isn’t working. Let's talk about it and try another approach.”
With some luck your child will grow up and thank you for caring enough to try and set some boundaries.
Where to find more information on Wait until 8th Campaign?
For more information and guidance on the Wait until 8th pledge visit
Thank you for reading, please let me know if this guide has been useful.