A parent shared a wonderful story recently about his 24-year-old son letting him know that he was going to change his passwords and asking if it was OK with him. The father chuckled as he shared this story, but he was also in a state of bewilderment that his son was still honoring their agreement from ten years ago -- the one where his dad would have access to the 14-year-old's passwords. Sure, the son had stumbled and misstepped, sometimes without the father's knowledge, but the trust factor was sealed with a safe agreement between parent and child, and that bond had lasted in to early adulthood. Impressive.
How can we replicate these kinds of situations to ensure lasting, healthy use of smartphones? We need to allow kids to have smartphones.
The Power of Face-to-Face
Comedian Louis CK would tell you otherwise, as he pronounces in his widely distributed rant against giving kids smartphones. CK addresses the need for face-to-face communication, for kids to learn how to live with being alone, and for being mean face-to-face and seeing the impact of words. For example, he describes the experience of telling someone to their face that they're fat. That exchange is quite different from a text exchange, which masks the reaction on the other end.
There is some merit to CK's thinking. Of course, we want kids to recognize the impact of their words (and actions). However, the reality is that kids are gaining exposure to phones and texting at younger and younger ages. But one size does not fit all, and parents need to constantly check in about their child's readiness to handle the responsibility of owning a phone.
This can change from one day to the next and requires constant supervision and conversation, but not so much so that the child feels suffocated by supervision.
Permission and Vigilance
Social worker Catherine Pearlman offers sound advice to parents dealing with how to manage smartphones:
The rules for cell phone usage can be changed at any time. If you feel your child is out of control or is caught using the phone inappropriately, don't be afraid to change the rules. Be prepared for the backlash (a.k.a. a tantrum), but hold firm. Eventually your child will accept the new rules - or you can take the phone away. The cell phone will probably be your child's prized possession and thus it is a valuable bargaining chip for behavior.
However, it is easy for parents to fall into a lull and to step back from vigilance. They can grow complacent and think that things are OK and that the child has earned the right for greater freedom and less supervision. That is a mistake that can have dire consequences.
The stakes are high, and one text can change a life, as we have seen in the stories of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, the 12-year-old Florida girl who jumped to her death, and the recent Rolling Stone article, "Sexting, Shame, and Suicide," documenting the tragic death of teenager Audrie Pott.
Digital Playground Safety Tips
Tech integration specialist Kevin Honeycutt framed the situation perfectly in a recent tweet: "Kids are growing up on a digital playground and no one is on recess duty."
The question for parents is how to be the ones on recess duty while their children are having adventures on that digital playground. Here are a few possibilities:
- Set up a password agreement like the one described at the beginning of this post.
- Set up a system where you are able to receive every text your child sends, and let him or her know that you will be supervising. The key point to make here is that you are not interested in every little detail, but instead are keeping an eye to make sure that all exchanges are healthy, safe, kind and free of harm.
- Be willing to communicate with the school when transgressions occur. And find out where the school stands on communication around digital missteps.
- When a misstep occurs, handle it from a place of concern and open communication. Flying off the handle will just send kids further underground.
- Praise kids for speaking up when they encounter texts of concern. This type of action needs to be encouraged.
What are some of your experiences as your children or students have explored the digital playground?