Q: I'm wondering about technology for my two daughters, ages 13 and 11, who are currently distance learning. The older one has always been more of an introvert and has just had one or two close friends. She has handled quarantine fairly well, because she doesn't mind spending time by herself. She hasn't had much interest in having her own phone (my plan had been to wait until she got to high school), but my 11-year-old is begging for a phone. She is much more social and really misses seeing her friends. She tells me that most of them have phones already, and they are all texting each other, making her feel left out.
My daughters have always been fairly close and have played well together, but their interests are starting to diverge, and there is more bickering, especially now that we're home all the time. With virtual school, they are already on screens so much that I'm reluctant to introduce yet another screen, but I also know how important those social connections are at this age and during the pandemic. I suspect my older child would spend all of her time watching videos and not really communicating with friends, while my younger daughter would constantly be texting. Do you recommend allowing them to have their own phones given that technology is one of the only ways to connect with friends right now, or should I continue to hold off and try to limit screen access while I can?
A: This is tough. Before we wade into this, please know you are not alone. During the pandemic, parents everywhere are feeling forced into making decisions about issues they thought were settled. For many parents, the smartphone was going to arrive in middle school or high school or at 13, or whenever they had previously decided. No one expected to be looking at months of isolation for our children. This is especially difficult in the tween and teen years, when children are so socially motivated.
All of this to say: Take it easy on yourself, and know that you aren't the only one struggling with a decision like this.
So, what you should do? Well, I don't know. You have two very different children, and you must treat them differently. It is typical to have one child who doesn't seem to abuse tech while the other cannot seem to live without it. These differences in your children (one more shy, one more social) are neither good nor bad; they simply are, and you need to parent accordingly.
From what I can read, the younger child wants the phone, but you want to know what you should do for both girls. My first recommendation is to call a meeting with the important adults in the house and lay out your thinking. The phones are coming eventually, so you may as well begin the conversation about your fears, how it will help and how you see the management of the tech taking place. Will you have contracts? Will you check texts? Where will all the tech be charged? What will the consequences be when (not if) the rules are broken? By the way, this is an endless parenting conversation. As soon as you think you've figured out how you are handling the tech, there will be new apps, needs, friends, school stuff and more that you can't even consider at this moment. It's tiring, but it's the truth.
As you speak your fears and worries out loud with another adult, you will find that some of your fears have solutions and some don't. Can you use different apps and devices to moderate what your children can and cannot see and do? Absolutely. Can you guarantee that your children won't make mistakes on their tech? Absolutely not. Mistakes will be made; improper texts will be sent and received, bingeing will occur, lyrics will be heard, they may stop coming out of their rooms and porn will be seen. Whether you give the phone to one child or both, all of these issues will need to be faced.
It is a solid parenting move to begin having family meetings that discuss tech and your family. Keep it a casual conversation, using the news and your own life as fodder for discussion, and listen to your kids. Are they demonstrating an understanding of how far-reaching tech can be? How feelings can get easily hurt? How tech can add to the fear of missing out? How tone doesn't translate in text? If not, it's not time for phones.
I know that children miss their peers, and I know that phones are an amazing way to connect. I won't judge you for handing the device over, but know this: The more time you give your child to grow up without the device, the better the chances are that they will mature into better decision-makers. The brain needs time, connection and boundaries to help it mature; only you know your children well enough to make the tech call. Saying "not yet" will result in tantrums, but they will pass. The phones will be here forever.
To help you, please check out Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) for guidance, Adam Pletter's class iParent 101 (iparent101.com) and watch "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix together. As for books, I love Julianna Miner's "Raising a Screen-Smart Kid" and Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains." Good luck.
Leahy is a parent coach and the author of "Parenting Outside the Lines" (Penguin Random House, August 2020)