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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why my child will never have a cell phone

I feel kind of sorry for my children. Because surely I must be the meanest mom ever.

My oldest is at the ripe old age of 10, and already is asking when he can have an iPhone. I basically tell him "never." Well, maybe not never - but I first emphasize to him that he is, after all, only 10. Then I remind him that I pay over $1,000 a year to have that phone. So far that seems to deter him, but I don't know how long it will last.
Why not? Everyone else is doing it! 
I somehow managed to go about well into adulthood without having one. I was already married before we purchased our first cell phone, a dinosaur of a Nokia that was functional but beyond that, mostly a pain in the butt to use. That was probably ten years ago.

Obviously technology has improved greatly and most of us are a long way from that old flip phone. As a mom, writer and whatever else I do I cannot imagine living without my smartphone, that honks a reminder to me when I need to be somewhere or sounds the alarm for the kids when it's time to head out the door. It's been great planning directions en route, not getting lost at crucial moments, calling ahead for pizza or sending a quick text to tell relatives we made it home from our long trip.

Call me old fashioned, though, because I just can't see how those applications that make the lives of adults easier can be applied to a kid who still sucks his thumb or watches cartoons on Saturday mornings. Why complicate things that just don't need to be complicated?

I can see how some parents would find them useful for certain things, probably for things I cannot relate to. For instance, we live in the country, so my child isn't around town by himself taking the subway. He's not at after school programs without me, or at any of that stuff that some other families might do. Don't get me wrong, we do have a life.

Several times my son has told me about the basket on his teacher's desk: it holds over half a dozen phones each day while he and his classmates are in school. Why they bring them, I don't know. I see one child's mother every day in the parking lot, without fail, so it's not like there are complicated pick ups and drop offs that mean mom and daughter won't see each other much. In fact, it seems like quite the opposite when I see them together, as if apart from school, they never leave each other's side. Even if her mother forgot about her, the school would take her back inside for shelter and wait with her until her mother showed up. And guess what: they'd let her use their phone to call home, just in case.

He has told me that several kids have shown him games on their phones, which leads me to ask about what else is on their phones:  can they access the internet? He says yes - that sometimes they watch YouTube videos. I want to make sure he's not exaggerating, that perhaps there are some parental controls on their phones because hey, they are kids, after all. But then I think to myself, don't count on it. I remember the days when VCR's and DVD's first came onto the market - and hearing how the preschool-aged kids could operate and manipulate them better than their own parents.

Aside from bullying through social media, the latest concern are photo apps like SnapChat, whose novelty seems to be that it can take photos and share them with others and then quickly delete them. Only the problem is that it doesn't really delete them, especially if you know how to do a screenshot. Supposedly the sender will be alerted if a screenshot is taken of their photo, but who cares - the damage can still be done. Some are worried that the supposed disposability of these photos will make users think they can send photos without consequence. It seems, though, that when it comes to the Internet and it's possibilities, both positive and negative, that nothing can be sent without some consequence.

(And guess what, folks - there's a new app that can bypass the screenshot notification - as well as a few new tutorials on line about how to take secret screenshots of SnapChat pictures. Wonderful!)

And the makers of SnapChat, as well as other popular brands like FaceBook, Twitter and YouTube ultimately care little about the content that might be visible to your pre-teen, but rather seem them as a marketing tool and little else. How hard is it to just lie about your age when you get an Instagram account? (By the way, there are literally millions of FaceBook users under the age of 13, which is probably a conservative estimate.) How hard is it to even find the privacy settings, much less fully understand them, before blasting your photos to the entire universe? As many have said of sites like FaceBook, it's like they want you to "overshare," and you realize little just how much info you're giving away over a given period of time.

At least 20 percent of teen users have 600 or more FaceBook friends.
How many of those 600 people do they actually know?
Thankfully the vast majority of them make their settings private, but a good portion do not. 
Again, when you consider the minimum required age to use FaceBook (wink wink, nudge nudge) is 13, and how utterly ridiculously hard it can be to keep on top of all the changes, settings and everything else the website throws at us (hey, did you know we can use your photos for public use in ads on our site? Thanks!) I imagine some people either fail to see the scope of what they're sharing and with whom or just throw up their hands and say screw it because it's so overwhelming.

We can also see trends in what kinds of information teens are sharing, perhaps without even thinking (and let's face it, adults do it too).
We make it pretty easy for people to find us
when we share this kind of information. 
I think it's fair to say that we shouldn't just call out teens for this potentially risky behavior; adults do it, too, sometimes unintentionally. And if I hear one more sanctimonious adult say, "Who cares, I have nothing to hide" one more time, I'm going to slap them. 

How many times have we seen inspirational or uplifting photos that say "If such and such a photo gets one million likes, X will happen." Within mere days or even hours of posting, they've already reached half that goal or more. That can be great if you want to share something, and can be devastating if you don't. Like the gossip grapevine, word travels fast - even faster if it's spread through Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram, or through whatever flavor of the month app people are using. It was noted that among one recently publicized teen suicide for social network bullying, the perpetrator obtained nude photos of the victim through an online chatroom, only to send them to just about everyone in her school. When she moved to another district - guess what, he continued to send them to students at her new school. 

Because of the advent of social media, it also means that all those typical teenage habits can be instantly photographed and shared with everyone. Gone are the days of "remember when we toilet papered our teacher's house and then got drunk? Good thing no one took pictures." Unfortunately sophisticated camera phones, coupled with instantaneous access to the internet, mean those memories are documented in real time and then, moments later, can be broadcast everywhere, many times with disastrous consequences. 

As technology changes and our boundaries concerning it are bent, shaped and sometimes broken, it's increasingly important to educate not only our children, but ourselves, in all the new ways it can be used and abused. Respecting not only yourself, but other people's boundaries, even if it seems harmless and in good fun, are becoming more and more important as well. I once had some strange creep blatantly take my picture in the grocery store check out line. Who knows where and how that ended up? 

As more and more stories of teen cyber bullying hit the internet, one thing I cannot understand is why people consider it a form of punishment to take away the cell phone of someone who is being bullied. Sure, if my kid were the one bullying someone, you can bet their phone would probably end up under the tires of my vehicle in a dramatic display of just what I thought of their behavior. But I'm beginning to think it's equally important to take a stance when your child is on the receiving end, if not for one important reason: your child's mental health. Receiving hundreds of text bombs a day, scanning updates on FaceBook from people you once thought were your friends who are now gossiping about you, seeing constant reminders in your face all the time, can have their lasting effects. Limiting that contact, and then redirecting into a more positive interaction, can potentially help them to see the negative, detrimental effects that it can have on their lives if left unchecked. Deleting the account, deactivating it, or putting the phone away for awhile might be worthwhile as you focus on something else that is more productive. As adults, we see our FaceBook friends do this all the time: announce they're taking a leave of absence to get away from toxic environments, or just to get work done or pursue other things that are more important and then poof, they're gone for months. Maybe forever. Why can't we encourage our children to do the same? 

I like the idea that this teacher came up with: show a picture of herself illustrating how fast something can be shared on social media. It's important to remember this is just one fan page that may have shared the image, at any given point in time. There could be many, many others - including this blog and whoever reads this post! 
Image: FaceBook/Time 4 Learning Timeline photos
The above photo received over 600 shares and nearly 8,000 people liked it -
this particular time it was shared. How many times was it shared on FaceBook
in total? Huffington Post estimates this photo was shared at least 16,000 times
and liked by more than 600,000 people. That's like the size of a small city.
Or, a large college campus…. 
Aside from the lesson learned in the example above, this article highlights how manipulating this photo - sometimes with funny results, sometimes not so much - can further lead to trouble. 

Have your kids had a bad experience with social network bullying or experienced negative consequences from cell phone use? 

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