Sep 29, 2023

Middle Schoolers Don’t Smartphones. They Need a Childhood.

Middle Schoolers Don’t Smartphones. They Need a Childhood.

Middle Schoolers Don’t Smartphones. They Need a Childhood by The Screentime Consultant
Middle Schoolers Don’t Smartphones. They Need a Childhood by The Screentime Consultant
Middle Schoolers Don’t Smartphones. They Need a Childhood by The Screentime Consultant

“What do you like best about middle school?” I asked my 12 year old the other day, three weeks into a new school year.

She paused. “Honestly? The independence.”

That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but I loved hearing it.

I taught middle school for twelve years. I know how challenging it can be for tweens to swim upstream in a crowded hallway, to panic about forgetting their locker combination, to overthink what to wear the next day, or worry if that person who was your friend yesterday will give you the cold shoulder today.

Let’s be honest: Middle school can suck. Every time I told someone I taught middle schoolers, they’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” As a student myself many years ago, I hated middle school, but then I chose, many years later, to willingly teach that age group, because I had tremendous empathy for them. I remembered how painful and awkward and confusing those days were, and I thought, maybe I can help guide them through it with fewer bumps.

But after twelve years of classroom work and fifteen years of parenting, I’ve come to realize that a generally “good” middle school experience is not about fewer bumps.

A meaningful middle school experience is actually about learning how to navigate the hard and challenging moments and having the right balance of peer, parent, and teacher support nearby to help you through it. As my own therapist often tells me, “We actually don’t want children to get through middle school unscathed. Not only is that not possible (#life), but a little bit of ‘scathing’ is very, very important for development.” (Please note: I am absolutely not referring to capital T trauma here– I’m talking about the normal, every day awkward, “cringe,” and, yes, sometimes even painful experiences that make up a twelve-year-old’s day).

Here’s what I hear parents say they worry about when it comes to the middle school years:

  1. Will my child fit in? Will she have friends? Will he get bullied? 

  2. Will she get her homework done and stay on top of her grades?

Often, the solution to many of these concerns is to provide a smartphone to ensure kids are in the social loop and up on the latest trends, and to keep the pressure up on schoolwork, hammering in the importance of grades and fighting about homework.

But here’s what I wish parents would worry about when those middle school years hit;

  1. How is my child navigating tricky social situations? Does she need more skill-building?

  2. When (not if) painful or difficult moments happen, does my child have strategies to cope? Does he have trusted adults to talk to?

Please note: I did not mention grades or schoolwork or homework. This will be an unpopular view, perhaps, but I do not believe that the purpose of middle school is to impart academic content. (Even though that’s how schools are structured, so that’s typically what happens…it isn’t what’s best for kids, in my opinion).

Instead, the purpose of middle school is to give children (yes, tweens are still children) the opportunities to build skills like:

  1. Executive function– planning, organizing, prioritizing, cognitive flexibility, metacognition, critical thinking, etc.

  2. Social skills– problem-solving, creativity, empathy, perspective-taking, compassion.

As I often said as a teacher, “Content in middle school is just a vehicle for skills.” It’s not about the words of an essay (those are of secondary importance), it is about the process of writing– a child’s ability to organize her thoughts, put them into sentences and then paragraphs, rework a draft, manage her time. 

Additionally, simply being a middle school student means being confronted daily with social situations where you are unsure of yourself, you don’t know what your role is, you haven’t found your voice. Children need as many opportunities like this in middle school to stretch these social muscles and engage with other students– especially and critically after the increased isolation and declining mental health connected to the pandemic. These experiences are absolutely fundamental to any “academic” success we may hope they will have.

Children do not learn when they are stressed. 

Children, of all ages, need opportunities to play. 

Children need repeated experiences with and exposure to developmentally appropriate challenges that give them the chance to scaffold their skill-building.

You will notice that up until this point in this essay, there has been little discussion of phones or social media. Yet digital technology is very much part of the daily fabric of our chidlrens’ lives. 

So how do we reconcile what we know about what these tweens want with what might actually be what’s best for their mental, emotional, and cognitive health? 

By reassuring, imploring, and inviting parents to see the middle school years as opportunities for growth, independence, and differentiation. That our tween’s desire to spend more time with her friends is not only developmentally normal, it is critical to her success in middle school– yes, the academic part; to request of parents to let go of the focus on grades and achievements– to remember that the learning happens in the in-between, not on the page (or, more commonly and unfortunately, the screen); to remind you of what you recall of your own middle school years– not the vocabulary test scores or the grade point averages, but how that one person made you feel when they embarrassed you in front of your friends or how the kind words of a friend lifted you back up.

And to remember: None of the above will come as a result of unlimited access to phones and social media. None of it. 

Giving our children smartphones and social media and internet access in the name of “connection” paradoxically decreases opportunities to practice independent skill-building. When our children rely on social media to feel socially supported, they miss out on real-world opportunities to build social skills. Even the act of being the “only kid” without a smartphone (a very real possibility in this day and age) is an opportunity for resilience-building and a tech-intentional life.

If I didn’t say this before, my 12-year-old does not have her own phone. Thankfully, her school has an Away-for-the-Day policy, which makes our family choice not to give her one much, much easier. (Pro Tip: if your school does not have such a policy, this is absolutely a critical starting point for advocacy!). And she does have The Screentime Consultant (who was a former middle school teacher) as her mother, so we talk about this stuff a lot.

It definitely isn’t easy. She absolutely argues with us. But when we get pushback (on anything from smartphones to why we won’t let her do two sleepovers in a row), I remind myself: This is normal. This is what it means to be a tween. The solution isn’t to hand over a smartphone. That won’t make these hard moments go away. 

If your middle schooler has a phone, I’m not judging you. I really am not. But I also want to make sure you know that just because you’ve provided one, the other challenges of parenting a tween won’t go away. In fact, they may be more challenging.

Remember, this is not our fault. But it is our responsibility.

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Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.