Aug 18, 2023

Save a Tween, Share a Phone

Save a Tween, Share a Phone

Save a Tween, Share a Phone
Save a Tween, Share a Phone
Save a Tween, Share a Phone

Hi everyone!

NPR recently interviewed me about how I answer the question: “When should I get my kid a phone?” and this week, I decided to elaborate a little more on it and share what we do in our household.

Let me tell you a few things about me first:

  1. I taught middle school for 12 years– mostly 7th grade English. I loved teaching middle schoolers. They are the best.

  2. I have two kids myself: Max, my older one, is 15, going into 10th grade. Sylvie, my youngest, is 12, starting 6th grade (which is middle school where we live).

  3. I am not “anti-tech,” I am “tech-intentional.” I have a phone. My husband has a phone. My son has a phone. Sylvie does not have a phone. (More on that in a minute). We also have several computers and iPads around the house. We watch movies, play video games, text, and shop online. We also do other stuff off the screens. Each day is a new opportunity to balance things out. 

  4. My word of the year is “nuance.” There is SO MUCH NUANCE to parenting around screentime. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach that works. If there were, you wouldn’t be here and my career wouldn’t be a thing. My hope is that you take from my work what resonates and adapt it to your unique family. (And to remember, each family is going to do things differently, and that is okay too).

When my son got his first phone (summer before 8th grade), we were just coming out of COVID. He was switching to a new school, and because much of 7th grade had been remote, he hadn’t experienced much peer pressure to get a phone. Over online school, it wasn’t obvious who did and who didn’t have a phone.

For Sylvie, things have been different. Partly it’s because she’s had a rather unique schooling experience (public, private, homeschool, remote learning, homeschool, public). Partly because she has expressed a lot more interest in having a phone than Max ever did. And partly because she’s been around a lot more kids with phones (research shows kids are getting phones at younger ages and their mental health suffers the earlier they get them). 

A few years ago, Sylvie started asking, “When do I get a phone?” At the time, I could joke and say, “When you’re 25 years old!” because then when I came down and said “16” or “18” I would look like such a nice mom. LOL. 

But then, as Max entered tween- and then teen-hood, I realized that we have a lot less control over his life. Mostly, that’s a really good thing. As children grow, they need opportunities to practice new skills, interact with others in the real world, and learn how capable they are!

But it definitely complicated the phone thing.

Starting last year, I noticed a shift in the way Sylvie socialized. A handful of her friends had their own phone (or smartwatch). Actually, more had them than didn’t. And of course, Sylvie, who has never missed any detail ever in her whole life, noticed. She wanted to be able to text and FaceTime with her friends, and even though she had a landline (something I definitely still recommend), you can’t text on a landline…and the truth is, kids text. 

(Don’t bristle at this– adults do too. Raise your hand if you screen calls and prefer to text instead! Or, as Steven Martin and Martin Short observe about younger generations in one of my favorite shows, Only Murders in the Building: “They don’t like it when you call!”

But at the same time, Sylvie had seen me working on my book (preorder here!) and had accompanied me on my trip to New York in April, attending the talk I gave at a school and getting interviewed with me for a documentary about screentime and mental health (amazing to hear her insights). And these experiences, plus our continued conversations at home, meant that while she probably still technically wanted a phone…she has kind of stopped asking.

Secretly, I was thrilled. But I also wanted her to be able to connect with her friends. (And this is something I hear about from parents all the time– “My kid is left out of text threads because she doesn’t have her own phone!”). 

I was witnessing this very challenge arising in my own home.

So here’s what we decided to do. I told Sylvie that she could give her friends my phone number. She didn’t have to say it was my number, and it’s not like kids would think to even ask. Then, because we use iPhones, she could text from the iPad (or my phone if a friend had an Android, but so far, that hasn’t been the case, and yes, this is a big issue because kids who have Androids are somehow viewed as “less than” kids with iPhones in part because they can’t text from iPads and computers. Middle school has always been complicated and this is just yet another layer! I digress…)

Sylvie gave out my phone number as her own. And in the following days, here are a few things we noticed:

  • Why 5th grade group chats are really, really annoying… 

  • Why it’s really hard to resolve conflicts with friends over text because you miss nuance (see!? word of the year!) and subtext and emotion… 

  • Why those three little dots indicating someone is texting you back doesn’t mean you have to RESPOND AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE OR OMG THE WORLD WILL END…

  • Why we don’t leave our phones in our bedrooms at night (ahem– yes, parents, this means you, too)...

  • How “WOW is an iPhone a rabbit hole” and “LOOK, MOM! COME SEE WHAT I FOUND ON AMAZON”…

  • The importance of putting the phone down when you’re speaking or listening to someone who is in the same room…

  • How DISTRACTING it is to get so many texts at once!

Has this been relatively annoying for me as a parent, to have my daughter share a phone and phone number? Yes!

When her friends call and then, when no one answers, they call again, and again, and again, even if I’m in the shower or not near my phone. Or when I’m trying to work and my iMessage is blowing up with pictures of Edward or Bella from Twilight or a million emojis. Or when she reads a text of mine but doesn’t mark it unread, so I miss it.

And of course, if you ask Sylvie, she would say, “We don’t really share, because you hog it all the time, and I still have to ask to use it” and honestly, I am okay with that, because that’s part of the scaffolding that we’re building so eventually, she can and will have her own device. 

Plus, I pay for it. So technically, yeah, it’s still mine. 

But it’s also been wonderful and amazing to share the phone with her and it’s allowed us to delay the smartphone longer while also giving her lots of opportunities to practice what it’s like to have a phone of your own.

Through this process, we have learned…

  • That we can sit on the couch together in the evening and I can help coach her through a friend drama– reminding her that sometimes these things can settle themselves overnight if we leave them be, or that she doesn’t have to take the bait, or that it’s okay to stand up for herself and set a boundary.

  • That we can use the shared phone as teachable moments to help one another, like showing her how to mark my texts as unread if she accidentally opens them, or to be mindful– both of us– of what we say and what we text, because we can theoretically see them all. (And for those wondering about privacy, it’s a great lesson that nothing is private online, that knowing someone else is watching might hold us to better behavior, that we need to check in with one another if the other one misses something, and wow, is that great for our communication skills with each other!). And she teaches me too– how to add reactions like balloons to Happy Birthday messages or Reply to specific texts (oh this is such a nice feature). 

  • That in doing this, we are giving her opportunities to show that she is learning to moderate her use– with help and guardrails– as a way to lay the foundation we want to see before we hand over a personal phone.

  • That the sharing of a phone naturally leads us to talk about people being gross or weird or scary on the internet and porn and grooming and why it’s better and safer not to give her full name or list her address, take pictures in front of your school building, or fill out online quizzes that want personal data about her. (And yes– I’ve noticed a few rogue Amazon items slide into the cart, but again, it’s a teachable moment, an opportunity for conversation, and a chance to reestablish values and boundaries, without shaming or blaming. Nuance, see?)

What’s interesting is that Sylvie has kind of stopped constantly asking for her own phone. I’m not sure if my messaging is landing (I’d love to think that) or if she’s wisening to the concerns I have or if she just feels confident enough in her own skin to be the “only” kid entering middle school without a phone (she’s not, but I know it will feel that way, and truthfully, this may change.) 

But that’s where we are, and I am noticing it.

This past weekend, Sylvie was invited to attend a friend’s birthday party at the Selfie Museum. (Yes, it’s a thing. Don’t judge us here in Seattle. It was really just a whole bunch of different backgrounds to take pictures in front of which makes pretty much everywhere a Selfie Museum these days).

Before she even asked, I offered to let Sylvie take my (our) phone to the party. It would be the first time she’d left the house with it, and, quite frankly, the first time I’d be away from my own device for a few hours during the day (which is a fact worth unpacking in a future essay!).

She seemed really surprised I offered, and then she was grateful. She wanted to change the background (Edward again) and the time/date font (purple, impossible for my eyes to read, but she thoughtfully changed it back when she brought the phone home). And she took a LOT of selfies (I mean, obviously). We also figured out that she could text herself/me and it would appear on my computer via iMessage.

It was hilarious at moments and frustrating at others (like she wouldn’t just answer my question about what time to pick her up and was simultaneously asking if she could go jump in the lake AFTER the party) but she ended with this:

It felt like a win, not just for phone etiquette, but for our relationship. Which, as I will say over and over again, is above all else, the most important part of any parent-child relationship when it comes to screentime. I feel really lucky that not only do I love my tween, I like her. I want to have fun during these tween/teen years– a lot of making that happen starts with me.

So should you share a phone with your tween? I can’t say for sure if it will work for you– it is nuanced, after all. :) But I would absolutely recommend this over a smartphone alternative or going straight to a smartphone. If you decide to try it, let me know how it goes. 

Thanks for your support,

Emily

PS: See if you can figure out who is who in the text thread below– it’s me and Sylvie, conversing via text, over my/our phone:

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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.