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Ode to the Flip Phone

Teen girls on cell phone (rft123)

I wish we all used flip phones, she lamented. Here was my 17-year-old client, a lovely girl I’ve been working with for three years. She said this as a seasoned expert, having been in the trenches of modern digital social life.

She’ll be one of the few in this generation who actually started on a flip phone, a device, if you recall, where the major feature was good old fashion text messaging (SMS). If there was Internet capability on her starter phone I’m certain it wasn’t worth the slow connection to be of any use. When my client was 13-years-old the iPhone was too expensive for her (or any) family to buy. It wasn’t until about 2010 that the iPhone really took off—and mostly with savvy business professionals. Then there was the brilliant move by Apple with the sell off of the iPhone 4 for $1 with the introduction of the 4S model. It changed the world of tweens. That’s how my younger daughter got her iPhone at last X-mas—2 years earlier than her older sister. I totally regret it. I say this as a mom. And I say this with irony as I spend half my work life creating a wellness app to teach kids self-care, self-kindness, and compassion. (I’m determined mobile phones can be used for the greater good.)

It’s the stories that I hear from my clients and friends that collectively cry out, “Help!” The stories are mostly from girls and moms; they bring the weariness and battle wounds of the smartphone front-lines to my attention. My young client who pines for her old flip also closed her Facebook account. I didn’t have a chance to ask why but I’m sure it’s because of the drama and distraction of the teen world of ranking, rating and endless profile pruning. She’s a levelheaded young woman. She is mature enough to know what’s important to her and how to spend her time (like applying to college). But the little ones—the wee tweens—have no chance to graduate from mere flip phones to handheld computers—that’s what smartphones are. Today’s smartphones no longer serve as the safety devices that parents once purchased for their kids. They are all-purpose entertainment devices. Now 11 and 12-year olds are handling smartphones that give them access to an enormous amount of information, unwittingly intrude on their privacy, and begin to shape the ways in which they form identify and self esteem.

Let ‘Em Prove it

My older daughter is turning 16 this week. She’s obsessed with getting her driver’s permit while I’m in no hurry whatsoever to drive her to the DMV. She studies for the test via her iPhone, of course. (Yes, there is an app for states’ driver tests.) I have come around to thinking teens also need a license to use a smartphone and that they need to have their brains’ executive function in fairly decent working shape to use one. Yet, the teen brain really isn’t out of the weeds of the massive remodeling it undergoes until later in adolescence (and even in the early 20s).

Here’s my wishful thinking:  Middle schoolers should be banned from smartphones altogether. Their emotional, cognitive, and social lives are just too fragile to take the assault of being mocked, blocked or unfriended. Tweens also get obsessed with their chat groups and have the urgent need to be connected every second of the day for fear of missing out. When they do discover they missed out—from all the photos of friends having a great time at someone’s house or the mall—they cry themselves to sleep at night. They are also impulsive and will whip off inappropriate language or photos with no sense of the potential consequences. Of course, this age group also quickly learns how to use their social networks as a way to torment others, and there are now enough stories in the papers to suggest that we have a serious social problem on our hands. Now let’s say a 16-year-old is mature enough to handle a smartphone. These teens should take a test on responsible use of a smartphone, proper etiquette, respectful correspondence, and understanding what cyber-bullying, sexting and text abuse actually is. Maybe they need to do a self-test to see if they meet some criteria or risk for being abusive or inappropriate—and tips on what to do or how to get help if they need it. Some may even need a support group.

OK, it’s unrealistic.

But let me go on. One mom recently contacted me because her 12-year-old son was devastated that his childhood friend blocked him on Instagram. This is a common experience. There are parents who ask me about which apps they should allow their child to have on their smartphone: Snapchat or Instagram?  Clearly, they have no idea what the apps do and what social needs each app seems to serve.

My question is:  Why are you buying a smartphone for your 6th grader? The answer is always:

“Well, all his friends have one.”

“She’s been begging us. She’s feeling left out.”

Yes, parents are now feeling peer pressure by the tidal wave of tweens, too! There are no easy answers. Except one:  Stay connected to your tweens and teens. In person connected, that is.

This means parents must stay connected to the kids’ friendship groups. Know the parents of your child’s friends (especially as their friendship groups begin to change) and make time to talk with them. Let your kids know that should there ever be a problem, like some drama in their friendship groups (online or offline), that you are there for them and will help them solve it no matter what role they played in it. The biggest barrier for teens is often shame and fear of disappointing parents when they do something wrong or become involved in a troubling situation. Teens want love and approval from parents not disapproval and judgment. When news stories come out about teen tragedies use them as teachable moments. Have a conversation. God knows there are plenty of stories.

“I love you no matter what. When you find yourself in a bad situation I want you tell me so I can help you.”

And yes, you can set a limit on when a child can have a smartphone. And once your kid has the privilege and responsibility of having a smartphone, you can set up rules and revisit them as he grows up. When it comes to all the apps, you don’t know have to know everything ahead of time (kids will share apps like you used to trade baseball cards or fashion magazines); you just have to be curious and want to learn how each works and why it’s so cool or not so cool. You can also do your research or talk to older teens. Let your kids tell you about they’ve got going on with the social networks. You can decide what seems appropriate and what doesn’t. Empower them to teach you what you don’t know and then go and learn it yourself.

Kids can raise you, too.

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