I have a confession to make: My son has a smartphone.
That may not seem like a big deal. After all, it’s hard to find a teen who doesn’t one these days. But it was a major move for our family — and particularly for me.
You see, when my son entered middle school nearly two years ago, I was adamantly opposed to to him having a smartphone. I even went public with my opposition, writing a column about it for the Mercury News.
I was the very picture of the stern, throwback father.
“Sorry son,” I wrote in the headline for my piece, “You’re not getting a smartphone.”
I had good reasons. Most notably, I didn’t think he needed one. We live half a block from his school, so we didn’t have to worry about coordinating pick-ups. He wasn’t involved in any after-school activities on campus, so we didn’t need to check-in with him to find out when he would be coming home. And I figured his transition to middle school was going to be overwhelming enough without also having to worry about checking messages on a smartphone.
But I was also worried by what I knew and had learned about the assorted risks of smartphone use among teens. Cyberbullying, sleep deprivation, texting while driving, addiction — they all weighed heavily on my mind.
I was further influenced by what I knew about how other kids my son’s age were using their phones. My son reported that his friends never seemed to talk with each other at lunch, because they were all consumed with watching videos or playing games on their phones. And the middle school-aged son of my colleague at the time broke every rule she and her husband tried to set to limit his use.
Indeed, my piece was written as a response to this colleague who — I not so subtly implied — had been foolish when she got her son his smartphone.
But things have changed, and I’m the one feeling foolish. Not only does my son have a smartphone, he’s actually had one since the beginning of this school year. So much for being the take-charge, in-command dad.
Why does he have a phone now? Well, it started as a practical matter. Instead of coming home immediately after school, he started staying after-hours to work on math. He also got involved in cross-country and started going to meets. We wanted to be able to check in on him. And we needed to be able to coordinate pick-ups.
But we let him keep it long past cross-country season, because it became an important tool for him. He uses it to look up information for his homework. He uses it to take pictures and share them with his friends. It’s his link to his social group — he uses iMessage like I used the landline phone in my room when I was a teen. And he uses it for fun, of course — playing games, watching YouTube and catching up on pop culture.
We also figured he was better able to handle it than he had been a year earlier. He had a year of middle school under his belt and had done very well.
As you might imagine, though, his phone use hasn’t been a completely positive experience. Indeed, it’s confirmed some of my worries. My son is on his phone all the time and has a hard time putting it down, even when asked. He’s been exposed via his phone to some disturbing stuff on the web and on YouTube, and my wife and I have much less ability to monitor and control what he’s doing. His chat groups seem to be mostly benign, but some of his classmates have written some questionable things.
When we gave my son a phone, we didn’t throw all caution to the wind. The phone we gave him was an old iPhone 5 we had sitting around the house unused. I didn’t really want to give him a smartphone, but I figured it was cheaper and easier than going out and buying new phone, even a “dumb” flip phone. And because we had paid it off long before, we didn’t have to worry about taking a big financial hit if it were lost or stolen.
In addition to giving him an older phone, we limited how he could use it. We didn’t get him a SIM card for it right away, for example. Not only did that make it free for us, it restricted him to using it only where he could connect to WiFi, which was generally at school or at home.
I also tweaked the phone’s settings, putting it a restricted mode that prevented him from seeing some of the default apps and blocked him from installing new ones.
But many of these technical limits were as frustrating for my wife and me as they were for him. Because the WiFi at school wasn’t always on, we sometimes couldn’t connect with him there. And we often couldn’t reach him easily when he was away from home or school.
Meanwhile, each time he wanted to have a new app on his phone, I’d have to play the role of IT support manager, a role I’m not fond of.
So, I ended up removing some of the restrictions I set, and we recently got him a SIM card for the phone.
Even so, we have tried to set other limits. One of the rules we set when we got him the SIM card was that he’s supposed to plug in the phone in the kitchen every night, rather than keeping it with him in his bedroom. Another requirement: He’s supposed to put the phone down and turn it off when we ask.
We’ve taken some other steps too. On occasion, I’ve glanced at some of his texts. And I’ve started to talk with him about some of the stuff he’s seeing online.
For the most part, those limits seem to be working — although he still seems to have his eyes on his phone much more than I’d like, and I still fret about the dangers.
All this is to say that I owe my former colleague, and my readers, something of an apology. I took a very black-and-white stance on the issue of kids and cell phones. But I’m seeing many more shades of gray today.