“Mom — I need that smartphone. I’ll look like a baby without one.”
I’m shopping with my 12-year-old daughter. She wants an iPhone, but there’s no way — competitive pricing, glitzy advertising and her own pleas be damned — that I’m going to let her walk out of the store with one.
“I can even do homework on it,” she whines, in one last attempt.
“You have a tablet at home for homework — so don’t give me any of that,” I say, snapping back. “And if you don’t want to look like a baby, we can leave without any phone.”
We leave with a feature phone.
That argument is one that parents around the nation are having with their tweens and teens. Concerns range from location tracking to driving distractions, and especially extra charges from rampant data use that can take a family plan by surprise.
I, though, was more worried about the big picture: how a smartphone would affect my relationship with my daughter, and interfere with my ability to parent.
Smartphones are convenient, of course, but they also alter the parent-child relationship, creating a constant connectivity that can often be mistaken for a genuine connection. It can weaken your authority and ability to bond, and in the hands of children whose judgment isn’t yet fully developed, smartphones can lead to the fast-track to bad choices and even worse consequences.
“Act like a parent, talk like a peer — I call it ‘peer-enting’,” Phil Dunphy, who plays the father on the TV show, “Modern Family,” advised. He may seem hip and cool on television, but parents who use that style of authority, dubbed “peer-ents,” are treading down a dangerous path ripe with pitfalls, and often take shortcuts in guiding their children through the difficult, and often tumultuous, teenage years.
Instead of Mom and Dad being stern disciplinarians, peer-ents today often act like friends, talking to kids “on their level.” There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s not new. Maybe your own parents used a similar “common ground” approach, making you wish they’d just be normal adults. You likely saw through — if not humored — those feeble attempts of relating on an even level, just like the kids of peer-ents do, too.
So how do you know if you’re a peer-ent?
According to PopSugar Moms, common signs you’re more of a peer than parent include: rarely saying “no,” shopping at the same clothing stores, fixing their problems instead of guiding them to solutions, and in general, letting them call all the shots.
Peer-enting is still a useful way to kick-off a difficult conversation, but when it dominates the parenting arsenal, it takes the place of honest exchanges that build a lasting and meaningful relationship. Act too much like a friend, and you can gloss over opportunities to give direction, which instills values and build character. And taken to an extreme, children can actually see you as a buddy, and not a parent, making guidance all but impossible.
It’s no coincidence the shifting of authority in the home has coincided with a rise of mobile devices. Technology has changed the rules of parenting. But by giving kids Internet access too soon, such as in the private and portable way of smartphones, the risk is that they’ll conduct their personal exploration away from your guidance.
“Personal devices give children more room to grow and explore their own identity than shared devices, like a family television, might have beforehand,” Sarita Schoenebeck, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies how technology impacts parents and youths in the home and at school, said.
Of course, in some ways, trying to sneak one by the parents is natural. And one of the main goals of adolescence is to separate from adults — developing and pursuing independent interests and beliefs. But as parents, it can be hard embracing the reality that they’re growing up, and peer-ents, in particular, often resort to a mobile connection to try to stay an important part of their children’s lives.
But children, especially millennials, are one step ahead of you. You may feel that a smartphone helps you track what the kids are doing, but more likely than not, they’re just sending “check-in” texts from anywhere.
But digital knowledge has become an important part of life. So what’s a parent to do?
You can have an interest in technology without using it exclusively as a parenting tool of choice. Build a friendly rapport with kids — text and appreciate YouTube videos with them — but don’t slip into peer-enting, where the goal is to be their friend.
“[Mobile technology] has given parents a whole new way to teach, observe, and relate,” Schoenebeck noted. “But it also challenges them to absorb new ways of interacting that they were not raised on in their own childhoods.”
As a parent, you need to check texts, social media and app use to make sure they aren’t using them as a substitute for face-to-face conversation. Otherwise, your kids may be creating the illusion of communication that covers up a lack of real connection.
“One area that is often overlooked in this decision is when parents are prepared to help teach their child how to use the smartphone,” Schoenebeck added. “You can’t hand a child a smartphone and expect them to know how to use it in a healthy and responsible way automatically — parents need to be ready to support their children the way they would when introducing any new technology or activity into their child’s life.”
Parents who navigate that best will understand that children need to separate from them, instead of trying to tether them with smartphones. In addition, talk to your kids offline about their values, expectations and morals and help them build a sense of digital literacy.
I’m developing a digital literacy plan with my daughter, but we aren’t yet at the point where I feel she’s ready for a smartphone. I can’t say she won’t become ensnared in bad smartphone behavior, so I need to feel comfortable that we’ve discussed various scenarios and I trust in her decision-making ability.
To me, that’s far more important than deciding whether it’s time to give her that very powerful tool.
We all know, children won’t always use phones wisely, and with the permanence and reach of the Internet, even small missteps have the potential to be big issues.
That was the case when Brian Holloway, a former New England Patriot football player, was in Florida on Labor Day. Between 200 and 300 teenagers broke into, held a party at, and then trashed his upstate New York home, documenting it all on social media. After the police busted up the bash, Holloway put up pictures the kids had tweeted and posted on Facebook to a website, HelpMeSave300.com to bring attention to the destruction and ask them to help clean up the mess.
“It looks like there was over $20,000 in damage to the home,” Holloway, who had lived in the home for 30 years, noted. “We’ve yet to determine the cost of all the items that were stolen.” The website shows photos that party-goers posted on Twitter, including kids posing with the family’s personal property, like a granite eagle that was the headstone of his dead grandson.
Only four people showed up, so Holloway decided to press charges. The digital campaign generated a bit of media attention, forcing the parents of other kids to step forward. But instead of apologizing, many chose to threaten to sue Holloway.
“Your kids are in my house breaking and stealing my stuff,” Holloway, a three-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl veteran, told ABC News. “And you are mad at me because I posted pictures that they took and posted themselves of them partying and tearing things up?”
Of course, the Holloway case is an extreme example of parenting gone wrong, but it underscores the magnifying effect smartphones can have with children, turning bad judgments into issues that are much harder to control.
Technology can also make you lax about doing the nitty-gritty work of parenting. In fact, studies show that a diminished role of parenting can be blamed for a lack of achievement in school. According to North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California, Irvine, parental involvement is a more significant factor in a child’s academic performance than the qualities of the school itself.
So check homework rather than send a text, talk about school instead of scour a school’s Facebook page, and actually attend meetings and events to exert a more powerful influence on their academic performance.
Parents are, no doubt, the single most influential force in a child’s achievement. For example, those that regularly read to toddlers, raised teens that performed much better on critical thinking and reading tests, according to the Chicago Tribune.
If it sounds like an old tune, it is. Parents have been historically seen as the primary cause of creating successful offspring and, in turn, societies. Over 300 years ago, English philosopher and physician John Locke, regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, said that good societies need good citizens who are produced by good parents.
“The well-educating of their children is so much the duty and concern of parents,” he wrote in his classic work, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education.” “And the welfare and prosperity of the nation so much depends on it.”
That kind of work is the tough part of parenting, where being a friend isn’t enough. When you shape their discipline and work ethic, and mold their character and values, they will resist from time to time. They let you know they dislike and even resentment you for it at the moment, but in the long run, it’s good for them.
As parents, we have to give up being liked, but it doesn’t mean giving up on loving them.
In a way, smartphones only amplify the dynamics that already exist between children and parents. “It can extend or exacerbate existing behaviors that would have been present without the technology,” Schoenebeck said. “A negative way I’ve seen mobile technologies affect families is by engendering a lack of trust between parents and children.”
You have a reason to be anxious about what your children are doing on smartphones — but it can lead you to engage in behaviors you wouldn’t normally do, like surreptitiously monitoring their conversations.
Schoenebeck added that technology enables new forms of communication, which can cement an already strong bond. Whether it’s Facebook, e-mail, or text, media often perpetuates a “get out of my backyard” attitude between parents and children, but I’ve heard parents say they appreciate the new ways of communicating that meet their children in their own spaces.
I’m looking forward to adding a new channel of communication with my daughter — but only slowly and on my terms as a parent. When confronted with the possibility of no phone at all, she settled for a feature phone. Maybe she was mad at me for not buying her an iPhone, but she’s glad to have a phone to suit her purposes — calls for rides after school, texts to chat with friends and a freedom to assert her independence. I made a choice that balances her needs as a tween and my concerns as a parent about over-burdening her with responsibility that is beyond her current maturity to manage.
The incident reminds me of what my mother would say when she was doling out punishment or disciplining me for poor choices. “You might not always think I’m a nice mom,” she would say. “But you will remember me for being a good mother.” Now that I’m raising kids of my own, I have a better appreciation for that kind of wisdom, even if the challenges I face as a parent have changed. ♦