by Darryl Loy and Dr. Julie McLeod
At Good Shepherd Episcopal School, we take educational use of technology very seriously. We believe that computers are among the most amazing tools to impact and transform education in recent history. The focus of this article, however, is another device that is often not thought of as a computer...a smartphone. Our phones have transformed over the last few years from phones to computers that can make phone calls.
The vast capabilities of smartphones begs the question: Should students have smartphones at all? The decision is a very personal one and will vary from family to family. There is no hard and fast rule regarding the age at which a child can understand how to properly interact with a smartphone. Just as every child learns at a different pace and in different ways, some may learn how to better manage time and resources at different points in their lives. Here are some factors to consider as you determine whether your child is ready for a smartphone:
1. Evaluate your child's maturity.
The Internet is replete with article upon article suggesting that cell phones are toxic or as addictive as crack cocaine or heroin, or, at best, a "devil's bargain." Other experts express more concern for certain students and suggest the decision to provide your child with a smartphone is more about the child's maturity rather than simply his or her age. Dr. Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist and anxiety expert at the Child Mind Institute says in the article When Should You Get Your Kid a Phone?, "I tell parents that it's not so much about a particular age as it is about a kid's social awareness and understanding of what the technology means. You could have a really immature 15-year-old who's acting out on the phone, but you give it to him because he's 15, whereas a really socially mature 12-year-old could handle it better."
2. Look at areas where your child demonstrates responsibility.
The Child Mind Institute's article provides even more things to consider: How often does your child lose things? How well does he or she handle money? How easily does your child pick up on social cues? How well does your child do with limits to recreational screen time? For children diagnosed with any sort of attention deficit, the constant stimulation available via a smartphone makes the device especially distracting. Additionally, children who are prone to act impulsively may not be ready for a smartphone. We do not truly know the longevity of posts and messages floated into cyberspace but, in all likelihood, anything a student impulsively posts today will potentially live on, something they will likely regret later in life.
3. Consider an intermediary device.
There are many ways to ease your child into a smartphone and/or accomplish your family's needs without putting the entire Internet at their fingertips. They still make simple phones that receive phone calls and text messages only. Manufacturers are also making watches with this type of minimal functionality that only make calls to certain phone numbers that you program. This may serve as an intermediary step that allows your child to grow into a responsible computer user who can learn over time to manage the engaging, powerful, and distracting aspects of these devices.
4. Discuss limiting smartphone capabilities.
If you feel as though you'd like for your child to have a smartphone, but you want to reduce the features and function and, therefore, the potential distractions, take advantage of the rather formidable restrictions the operating systems of these devices make available. Here is an article that can serve as a great starting place, 5 iOS Settings to Limit Your Child's Mobile Usage. Restrictions on the iOS platform can be a very powerful tool to manage what can and can't be done on the device. Do, however, avoid a major headache and remember the restrictions passcode!
5. Define your rules and expectations.
If you choose to give your child a smartphone, most experts agree there should be conversations about clear guidelines and rules regarding the use of the device. Several are listed in the article from Child Mind Institute. As we do with our school devices, parents should know all passwords on their child's device. Set limits on both screen time and phone time. Monitor any social media sites used by your child. Predetermine the consequences associated with breaking rules, damaging or losing the device, etc.
Dr. Ryan Smith, a counselor and family therapist who has spoken to our Good Shepherd parent community on a couple of occasions, offers a great resource on his website called a Family Tech Plan. It's a concise resource for families to discuss and define ways to manage the use of technology in the home.
If you've considered these factors and don't feel your child is ready for a smartphone, waiting is always a viable option. While your child will tell you he or she is the only one without a smartphone, we know this is not true. Ask around to other parents, and you will find others in your grade level who have not provided a smartphone to their child. This can be a difficult position to stand if you feel alone, but you don't have to stand alone! Other parents will be thrilled that you have sought them out!
Finally, do not underestimate the influence you, as a parent, have over your child both directly and indirectly. Certainly take the direct approach and talk with your child about the responsibility that comes along with these digital devices; we do this at Good Shepherd. Additionally, I highly encourage the indirect approach of modeling good digital device etiquette. Children do learn a great deal simply by watching their parents and how they react to things and situations that arise. We have to ask ourselves, as parents, if we want our children to spend less time using their computers and smartphones, should we lead the way by doing the same? Most likely, the answer is yes.