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When Should I Give My Kid a Smartphone?

We recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. That means the iPhone has been in production two years longer than my oldest child. Every student in elementary school today cannot fathom a world where smartphones don’t exist. I LOVE this Douglas Adams about technology in our lives:

 

With the invent of the smartphone being so new to those of us over 35 yet part of the natural way of things for those under the age of 10, you can see how this can become a major topic of contention. One of the major discussions amongst parents in my community and others is when is the right time to give a child their first phone. This is an ongoing debate in the Hooker household as well. While my kids have access to devices like iPads (both at home and at school) there are times where it might be helpful for them to have access to a phone.

Here’s one example that was shared with me recently:

When we were kids and we went to a friend’s house, we had to call our parents to let them know we had arrived.  The only problem with that solution today is that many households are getting rid of landlines which makes it hard to communicate with your child when they aren’t within your grasp.

Now, some could argue that may seem like more of a convenience then anything and to just get your kid a “dumb phone” for that purpose. While we’re still on the fence about when to give our oldest her first phone, here are a list of reasons why it might make sense to do it sooner rather than later.

Becoming a Good Digital Citizen

What does it mean to be a good citizen much less a digital one? Much of this practice happens at home at an EARLY age when we teach our kids how to be respectful, say “please” and “thank you” and not to chew with their mouth open. While there is much more to being a good citizen than just that, we do start building those traits as soon as our kids can speak for the most part.  Enter in the smartphone and the world online.

While many of the rules of modern society apply to an online environment, some do not. The ability to be “anonymous” (I put it in air-quotes because no one is truly anonymous online) on the internet can bring out the worst in some people. Just look at the comment section of any online discussion or better yet, listen to the story of Lizzie Velasquez (video below), who’s father I used to work with. Lizzie was looking at YouTube one day when she came across a video that was titled “The World’s Ugliest Woman” and was shocked to find footage of herself on the video. While this is an extreme example of what the online world can do to people, her reaction and subsequent inspirational talks turned what could have been life-devastating to life-defining.

The sooner we start to work with our kids on appropriate online behavior the better. When we thrust them into this world in the middle of their teen years, many bad habits have already started to form. Throw in the fact that they have “teenage” brain and don’t believe a thing their parents try to teach them, and you start to see that it might be more beneficial to have those conversations about online behavior at an earlier age.

Handling a Cyberbully or Troll

Lizzie’s example from above was just one of countless examples of cyberbullies or trolls that you can find on the web. Bullying has been around long before the days of Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver. With social media and instant communication, it is now easier to torment or harass someone. Every year it seems, there are stories out there about teens committing suicide due to being the target of a cyberbully. Your first reaction as a parent is to protect your kids and prohibit them from entering this online world. I know that’s mine. You figure, if they aren’t online, they won’t have to deal with a cyberbully.

These stories are tragic and shouldn’t be ignored, but we also shouldn’t completely put our kids in a cyber-bubble. The numbers of teens that have experienced or witnessed some form of cyberbullying is nearly 90%. However, bullying behavior, whether online or face-to-face begins as early as Kindergarten. As kids get older, they tend to be more reluctant to report bullying to parents. While this may not seem like the best reason to give your 10-year old a phone, one thing is for sure, the sooner they learn how to handle this sort of online behavior with your support, the better.

Regardless of when you give them a phone, you need to be actively involved in your kid’s online and daily life. That means understanding the social media sites they frequent. While we may not understand the fascination with the SnapChat dog-face filter, we should look for opportunities to have our kids teach us the ins and outs of a platform while we play the role of student. Not only will this open up lines of communication, but it will also give you an opportunity to relay some life wisdom to your child and discuss scenarios of what to do when a troll or cyberbully attacks.

Again, just like with citizenship, when our kids are in their primary grades they is a strong likelihood they will witness, become a victim, or participate in some form of bullying. We need to be involved and on the look out for signs like depression, anxiety, anger or fear. Unlike face to face situations, we have a multitude of digital tools to help us monitor and track when a cyberbullying situation may be taking place. I like the advice given in this article which includes setting up a Google Alert for your child’s name. The sooner we can have these hard conversations and problem-solve the solutions the better.

Data Privacy

This past year, I started having social media and cyber safety talks with 4th and 5th graders. I did this for many of the reasons stated in this post but mainly because I felt like a lot of bad online habits were already forming by the time students were in middle school. One of the most interesting discoveries in talking with 10 and 11 year olds wasn’t that they don’t know what a floppy disk was (although I found that depressing), it was that they were adept at identifying what information to not tell a stranger online.

They knew not to give out their personal information, address, credit card number, etc. whenever they were involved in an online discussion or game. However, when I showed them the terms and services agreements that often pop-up where a company wants access to your information, most just said they click “ok” or “I agree” and continue on (Parents are guilty of this too). A stranger can come in all different forms, from an online person acting like a child to a multi-million dollar company stealing your information and selling it to others.

Be careful what you agree to…

Having kids check with their parents before downloading malware or accepting terms and agreements that make their data privacy vulnerable is important. When kids enter middle school, they are testing their independence and for the most part, decide they can make these choices for themselves. While it’s important that they gain some independence, we need to scaffold and build a foundation of understanding in them early on when it comes to their data privacy online. Otherwise, they might all be trying to give a Prince in Nigeria money by accident.

Learning How To Balance Life

Research shows that most habits and much of a child’s personality are formed by the age of 9. One thing we started working with our kids on as early as 4 was self-monitoring their screen time and appropriate times to use technology in everyday life. While we as parents don’t always model this the best, our kids have begun to internalize the best practices that come with using technology and social interactions in everyday life.

By scaffolding these skills early on in their life while their habits are forming, we will likely be more successful battling against things like internet addiction or social isolationism. Will there still be battles in the future as our kids become teenagers? Absolutely. But by building those habits in their early years, we’ll have a strong foundation to build on. My wife and I are far from perfect parents and still have moments where we battle this digital balance with our kids. However, as the years go on, we’ve found that our kids have become much more cognizant of an overuse of screen time.  Recently, during my usual Sunday football viewing, my middle child told me, “I think that’s enough screen time for the day, let’s go out and play.”  This type of internalized self-awareness doesn’t happen without tons of practice while they are in their highest habit-forming years.

Building Healthy Relationships

Part of that life balance besides just screen time, is building the skills to have healthy relationships both online and in person. Many adults and older teens, to whom the smartphone is still considered “new” have struggled with the management of peer-to-peer and parent-to-child interactions. Some of this is due to the instant gratification and distraction that comes with constantly checking our phones.  Modeling when to be on our phones and when not to is one of the best ways to show how to have healthy relationships and interactions. Modeling can only go so far in teaching our kids the best practices of relationships though. Having some access to a device to “practice” and fully internalize this skill early on will help as they enter their later teen years.

Avoid Parent Shaming

At this point I should put a MAJOR disclaimer: This post is not to be considered a persuasive essay on why we should give every kid a smartphone at the age of 6. Let’s agree on something – every child and family is different. Some kids can easily handle the social pressures of online interaction early on in life. Others have noticeable changes in behavior just by having access to a screen for more than 5 minutes. Regardless of which child you are raising, teaching them to be digitally aware is not easy. But then again, neither is parenting.

Much in the way that I won’t judge or shame a parent that gives their child a phone in first grade, I won’t judge or shame a parent that has chosen to wait until they are in high school. We all carry with us a variety of ideals and ideas when it comes to raising our child. I have respect for those that are choosing to wait to give their kids a phone until later in life. A smartphone is an expensive device that requires a level of responsibility that some kids can’t manage. The truth is, as a parent, we’ll never know the perfect age to give our child their first smartphone.

But keeping it out of the hands of our kids hands because of our fears or worry of being shamed isn’t right either. This post is more meant to give parents that have chosen to give their kid a phone some skills to work on and be aware of. Why not take advantage of building those skills early on in life rather than later when the more harmful online encounters happen?  Doing so could give your child an edge on their peers when it comes to online and social interaction. It could also create a trusting, open line of communication between child and parent throughout their teenage years and beyond.

 

Digital Zombie Series: Invisible Cell Phone Shields

In the movie Harry Potter, one of the most fantastical moments happens when Harry receives his invisibility cloak, passed down from his father. It was a powerful moment in those movies and a tool that Harry would utilize many times over in the following films to help get him in and out of trouble.

SJ when he first thought of Smartphones...

SJ when he first thought of Smartphones…

While this magic may seem like fiction, I have news for you. Most of us now harness the power of invisibility in the palm of our hands.  My wife and I began to refer to the magic of what we called the “Invisible Cell Phone Shield”, or ICPS, back before smartphones were even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye.  I remember my first encounter with this phenomenon back in 2004.

I had recently purchased what I then described to my wife as “the last cell phone I’ll ever own” —the Motorola RAZR.  It was so cool and slick and shiny and even looked like it could be some sort of weapon.   At any rate, we were waiting for a friend outside of a University of Texas basketball game who was supposed to bring us some tickets.  Texting wasn’t really wide-spread at the time so I was stuck with this RAZR attached to my head trying to get a hold of him.  We wandered around outside the arena for about 20 minutes, my wife’s foot tapping impatiently with every passing minute.

At that moment, I captured my first glimpse of the power of invisibility.  As I wandered over by the “Player Will Call” door, phone still firmly planted on my ear and a furrowed brow across my face, the door magically opened.  An usher, seeing my stress and now doubt high-status phone had surmised that we must be trying to get in.  However, rather than bother me with a question like “can I see your tickets?” he instead let us wander right in through the back door and practically onto the court.

When we got inside my wife looked at me in dismay and said, “what just happened?”  I didn’t have an answer for her, but somehow we were now sitting court-side at a basketball game in seats we had no business being in.  We both began to get nervous.  I called my friend again. No response.  The game was about to start.  An usher, looked in our direction and started walking toward us.  Carefully and purposefully, I picked up my phone and placed it on my ear.  This time, I acted like I was in a deep conversation.  The usher approached, paused for a moment, then moved on with a sort of dumb-founded look on his face.  It worked again!!

One place ICPS didn't work...

One place ICPS didn’t work…

After tip-off we were able to finally locate our friend and go to our actual seats, but that moment stuck in both of our heads.  What was this witchcraft that made us invisible?  Could it work anywhere else?  (short answer- no, something I would find out the following year when I tried to use it to sneak into the 2005 National Championship game)

We had discovered a secret power this mobile technology held.  It made us not only somewhat invisible, but also protected us from harm or questioning.  It was the Invisible Cell Phone Shield and it was a great thing to behold.

That was 10 years ago. Today, you see this ICPS as common place throughout modern society.  People walking down the street, holding the phone up to their ear to avoid real conversation.  Hanging out near a grocery store exit around Girl Scout cookie time is a great time to watch this phenomenon in action.  Even the Girl Scouts can’t seem to penetrate its defenses.  Common waiting areas like bus stops, elevators, doctor’s offices, etc seem to also have a case of widespread ICPS.   I even witnessed our beloved former UT football coach Mack Brown using the Invisible Cell Phone Shield recently when I saw him walking through the airport.

What started out as a magical tool, a cloak that could help me get in and out of trouble, has now become a means of social isolation.  It has become a necessity when going out into the world and mixing in public places with strangers.  And now that these are all smartphones (update: the RAZR was not the last phone I ever bought) it seems as if we don’t even have to press the device to our ear to gain the power of invisibility.

This video called “Look up” was released recently and has gone viral on social media (ironic considering the content).

In the video the author demonstrates a situation where he chose to make himself invisible and in doing so, misses the opportunity to interact with the future love of his life. While I think this is an extreme example of how too connected/not connected we are as a society, it demonstrates perfectly what’s happened to this once magical power.  It’s almost like Harry got the cloak, put it on, and never took it off again, especially when it came to being a crowd of strangers.

So my new challenge for all of the world is not to just go out and be ‘visible’ by detaching yourself from your phone.  Instead, I challenge you to break someone’s Invisible Cell Phone Shield and actually interact with them.   It will seem uncomfortable and almost like an invasion of privacy. But it isn’t.  You’ll probably get a perplexed look that says “can’t you see I’m on the phone?” or “seriously, I’m texting someone now, why are you bothering me?”  but I encourage you to fight against this disease that I once considered magic.

After all, you never know who you might meet….

My #selfie w/Mack after I broke his ICPS

My #selfie w/Mack after I broke his ICPS

 

 Note: This post is the fourth installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.