Welcome to , an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2019 and we have the entire internet to contend with.
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“I’m the only person in my class who doesn’t have a phone,” my son told me.
“No, you’re not,” I said, knowing that quite possibly, he was.
This was the jist of several brief, pointless conversations over the next few months. He made me feel guilty; I buried my head in the sand. He’s 11, and inching away from me. Girls aren’t as annoying as they were when he was 10. He’s starting to deal with big feelings. He needs space away from his little brothers and sisters. I remember what it’s like to be that age, to want to hang out with your friends anywhere other than your own home. Anywhere your parents aren’t.
“I need a phone so I can keep in touch with you,” he said. We both knew this was the last thing he wanted a phone for. But he was right. When I was a kid, my sister and I spun around the streets on our bikes and roller skates with no digital thread keeping us connected to our mother. As long as we stuck to two rules — don’t talk to strangers, and be home before it gets dark — we had glorious freedom.
Things aren’t so simple now, although I’m not sure why. When I engage my rational brain I don’t necessarily believe that the world is a more dangerous place than it was when I spent a huge chunk of my life on roller skates. Aren’t we simply more aware of those dangers because they’re presented to us 24/7 on various screens around our home? Years, decades, centuries before Facebook news feed, bad people did bad things to children. But my other brain — my mum brain — demands that I know where my child is, and who he is with, every second I’m not by his side.
So I gave in.
I’m well aware of the irony in giving our kids phones to keep them safe. Many experts attribute the (twice as many teenagers now have depression as a generation ago) to social media engagement, which largely happens via smartphone. By giving our kids digital devices, we may be able to monitor their every move, but are we also inadvertently increasing their risk of anxiety, depression, low self-worth, and cyberbullying?
“There have to be rules,” I told him as I finally handed him the thing he’d coveted for so long. Still too young to care about having the latest model, he grasped my battered old iPhone with delight. I think he’d have agreed to anything at that point, but he nodded enthusiastically as I told him he wasn’t to have the phone in his room during the night, he wasn’t allowed Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, and he had to share his passcode with me.
“Instagram’s for oldies,” he declared. “Can I have Snapchat, though? It’s how all my friends chat to each other.”
My heart sank. I knew little about Snapchat beyond the fact that you could give yourself dog ears or the flawless, alabaster skin of a newborn baby on your selfies. But I also knew that Snapchat was Public Enemy No. 1 in the social media world (or, according to the UK’s , Public Enemy No. 2 after Instagram).
I spoke to some other parents, and discovered that my son was right. Snapchat was the only way the kids in his class kept in touch. They used huge group chats to arrange meet ups at the local pool or park, to share memes, and to stay abreast of various dramas in and out of the classroom. To give my kid a phone but not let him have Snapchat was worse than not giving him a phone in the first place.
I love Instagram. Facebook I can take or leave. Twitter drives me crazy. I’ve never, ever, had any desire to use Snapchat. But I knew I had to get on board, purely for my own peace of mind. So we struck a deal. (I’m learning that striking deals seems to be a big part of parenting an 11-year-old.) He would get Snapchat, and I would too.
And it works. It lets me track my son’s location when he’s out with friends (we tweaked his settings so only I can do this — nobody else). I can also see what he’s posting. He knows this, and he’s cool with it. We agreed on other rules too. He can only share content with his “real life” friends. I know his password; he knows this means I can check on his activity anytime I like. And I do, every couple of weeks. It’s how I found out that a girl in his class had sent him a few nasty messages. We spoke about it, and he blocked her. It’s how I found out he was having a crisis of confidence about “nobody liking him.” We spoke about that too, and together we figured out a couple of things we could do to boost his self-esteem.
I don’t use Snapchat for anything other than keeping an eye on my boy, but it’s also been a surprising bonding experience. He set up my account for me, got a kick out of showing me how it all works, and burst out laughing when I asked him what a “snap” was.
I’m still not sure I’d call myself a Snapchat fan. But I am a fan of exchanging messages and funny pictures with my son. It makes me feel like I’m still in the loop. It helps me to let go, just a little.
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