My 14-year-old son just started high school, and he does not have his own smartphone. When I tell people this, I get the same face I imagine I would if I said that I hadn’t fed him for several days. My son is fine, though—really. I don’t think he’s ever been lost, stranded, or even inconvenienced by his lack of that quintessential 21st-century accessory.
My son and his brother, one year his junior, are not living in the Dark Ages. They each have a tablet, loaded with a souped-up internet filter and time restrictions, that they use at home. My boys are not like the kid I met in college who had grown up without TV and didn’t appreciate the cultural relevancy of Bo and Luke Duke or George Jefferson. My kids readily quote Ron Swanson and Dwight Shrute. They text, they Snap—but only on weekends and a little bit this past summer. What sets them apart from most of their friends is that neither of them owns a portable device connected to the internet that can be hidden in the depths of their baggy Under Armour shorts.
Now that my oldest is in ninth grade, it occurs to me that this decision not to buy him the one thing that every other kid has might be the most subversive, countercultural gesture of my entire life. I’m a total conformist. I follow the rules. I return my library books on time or pay the fine. My husband is a captain in the Navy—certainly not countercultural. As soon as the first baby came along, we bought a minivan. We’ve never been out there trying to make any bold statements. And yet, when it comes to allowing my teenagers access to smartphones, I am apparently a rebel. Is resisting this ubiquitous technology really worth it?
[Read: The slackification of the American home]
For me, it is. I believe that a smartphone too accessible, given too early, and in the wrong hands is at best an addictive distraction and at worst a handheld siphon draining away children’s youth one beep, one swipe, one notification at a time.
The smartphone delay in our house started long before the devices were as prevalent as they are today, and at the time it was more an omission than an act of resistance. When our boys were babies and toddlers, we heeded the advice of pediatricians and child-development experts who warned against too much TV for young children. We watched the PBS morning lineup and Disney movies, but that was the extent of our screen time. Then, in 2009, when my oldest was 5, my dad gave us a book by Richard Louv called Last Child in the Woods. The thesis left an impression on us. Louv asserts that children suffer from “nature-deficit disorder” when they don’t spend enough time under the sky among other living creatures. Already in the habit of limiting our kids’ screen time, it was natural to delay buying them electronics. We relented with the purchase of tablets, mainly for use during our frequent trips to visit faraway family, but we never graduated to smaller, more portable devices. We wanted our children to spend their time playing outside. And reading books. And talking with us. So we never bought them phones. They kept getting older, and we kept not buying them phones. Now that they are in middle and high school, I realize that their childhood has been somewhat different from their friends’—and also remarkably different from mine.
In middle school in the 1980s, my friends and I whiled away our free time unsupervised at the skating rink, the mall, and the arcade. In high school, we graduated to more secluded places where we could park, turn up the music, and hang out unseen by prying, parental eyes. Even the most undesirable place, a vacant lot underneath an interstate overpass, was a haven as long as your friends were there. Now, a mere 30 years later, the skating rinks and arcades are closed, and my kids’ lives bear little resemblance to those of my childhood friends and myself.
In The Atlantic, Jean M. Twenge discussed her 25-year study of generational differences in the United States. She found that how today’s teenagers spend their time is immensely different from how every preceding generation of teens back to the Baby Boomers spent theirs, and all evidence of cause points to the emergence of the smartphone and the birth of social media. Teenagers today are more likely to be at home, connected to the world via Wi-Fi. Yet at the same time, they are more likely to feel isolated and unhappy. Twenge writes, “The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015.” Ironically, the technology that promises to connect us all is also leaving us more alienated.
Twenge’s findings about today’s kids are not all bad. Teens smoke and drink less than their parents and grandparents did at the same age, and they are less likely to be in a car accident, which is great. More worrisome is that they are less likely than their parents were to date, and that they are less interested in learning to drive, despite the freedom and independence that comes with a driver’s license. With the internet, as Twenge points out, “they don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends.”
But they’re not really spending time with their friends, are they? When I tell my friends that my teenagers don’t have phones of their own, I’m often asked if I’m worried about them missing out on a social life. When did sitting at home isolated by closed doors and earbuds become a social life? As a culture, we’re providing our kids with these devices so that they don’t miss out on a virtual life, but what they give up in exchange is a real life. If teenagers were using their phones primarily to make plans to gather and hang out, that would be one thing. But often, Twenge’s research suggests, use of the smartphone has become the end unto itself. Many kids seem more interested in maintaining their “Snapstreaks” than in getting on a bike and riding over to a friend’s house.
Recently, after being with his friends, one of my boys came home with the slouched shoulders and shuffling gait characteristic of an unhappy teenager. Someone in the group had a sparkling new iPhone X. “It’s pretty cool,” he said with a dejected expression. Like most moms, I hate seeing my kids sad. We talked for a bit, and he sheepishly admitted, “I know I don’t need one, Mom. I just want one.” I think my boys feel the same way about smartphones that I felt about Guess jeans—the ones with zippers at the ankles—in 1984. All the cool, pretty girls had a pair. My desire for the jeans was more about fitting in with the crowd than about the jeans themselves.
Like the answer to many parenting questions, the answer to whether a child can handle a smartphone likely depends on the temperament and maturity of the child. I don’t want to disparage my beloved firstborn. He is currently training with his dad to run the Marine Corps Marathon in the fall. He’s a good student and an accomplished trumpet player. That said, his judgment often indicates that his frontal lobe is still developing. He would eat an entire bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos—the party-size bag—if left alone with the opportunity. He has matured somewhat in the months between eighth and ninth grade, but he often exhibits the attention span of a squirrel. This is a boy with hopes and dreams for his future, and the intellectual ability to achieve them. My husband and I believe that giving him his own smartphone at this point would be akin to buying him a carton of cigarettes and a subscription to Playboy and wishing him good luck staying focused in high school.
Though we may be in the minority (at least in our community), we’re not alone in our concern. The Wait Until 8th movement, for example, encourages parents of kids at the same school to band together to pledge not to give their children smartphones until at least eighth grade. In one high-profile example, Madonna recently said, “I made a mistake when I gave my older children phones when they were 13.” My husband and I, the ’80s kids that we are, felt validated when we read this. Even the Material Girl, the rebel of our generation, views the smartphone as a negative influence. As a society, we acknowledge that certain privileges, such as driving and voting, come with maturity. Maybe smartphones should be another such privilege. There will come a day when our sons are ready to use the smartphone for the purpose for which it is intended—as a communication tool to help them conduct their lives. For now, it is an expensive and distracting toy.
I don’t judge other parents for making a different choice. The question of how much tech to allow into our children’s lives and when is one of the biggest parenting challenges of the current era. Denying a teenager a smartphone in 2019 is a tough decision, and one that requires an organized and impenetrable defense. Today’s kids are smart, and they will present an almost airtight case for why they need a phone. Thankfully, academics such as Twenge are providing material for our cross-examination.
If you are a parent who’s struggling to hold strong against the inexorable pull of the smartphone, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible. If you’re late to pick your kids up from soccer practice, they can wait and wonder where you are for a few minutes. Patience is a virtue. If they have to borrow your phone to check the Nats’ score or ask a friend about homework, they will live—hopefully a real life rather than a virtual one.