Ages 10-12 (Tween)Ages 13-17 (Teen)Media & Technology

Techno-Techno-Tween-Tween – A Smartphone for an 11 Year Old

Part 1: Acquiring New Technology

As I write this, days, maybe even weeks before I actually post, I’m thinking about my lunch plans for today. No biggie…just going to buy a smart phone for my 11-year-old.

Even writing that makes me want to do the “ack make it stop” flappy hands.

I originally just wanted to get him some cheap flip phone that wouldn’t really matter if he lost or damaged it because the first one would probably be free and if something did happen to it, the worst thing that would be lost is some texts and phone numbers and $50 from his saved up allowance

I was outvoted.

So then I thought, fine. We can upgrade, since we’ve been out of contract for about a week now, and he can have one of our old Android phones after we strip them down and add some parental controls.*

But now my husband has made the case for getting him a sport (i.e., pre-ruggedized, eliminating the need for an Otterbox) version of the newer model, complete with parental controls, tracking and waterproofing.

The hell?

Even typing out the parental control and tracking thing makes my brain hurt. When did I become that parent? I was in the anti-content control research group in my Law and Technology seminar in law school. I think tracking devices are invasive and whenever anyone poses the barely even still hypothetical question about “would you implant a tracking device in your kid” my answer is always an enthusiastic HELL NO.

So what happened?

On the throwaway phone versus smart phone front, we want our son to learn how to use this technology while he’s still young enough that the consequences are less dire. Part of it is also the purpose of the device. I was approaching it as an emergency contact system. He will be expected to be considerably more independent this school year, so I want him to have the ability to easily text or call if there are problems – did he forget a book he desperately needs or to put his in his hearing aids? Did he break his glasses? Is the door lock not working? (If he breaks his phone, all bets are off.)

Remember when these were incredibly cool? (via Flickr user garryknight)
Remember when these were incredibly cool?

Now, did we all manage without this technology when we were 11? Of course. And so did our parents. Do most of you want to give up having the entirety of world knowledge at your fingertips, along with the book you’re reading and your family photo album and a couple dozen interesting activities?

Didn’t think so.

That is how my husband was approaching it. First off, this is supposed to be the kid’s primary birthday present. (We won’t actually talk about how that worked out.) Sometimes you want to get someone something nice, even a little bit over the top, because you just want to. And my husband really wants to do this for our son, who, after all, wants a phone for the amazing things it can do, not to check in with mommy. We have the means to do so without overreaching our budget so while I personally feel it’s a little excessive, there’s nothing inherently awful about the concept.

On a more selfish note, I figure this will also cut down considerably on his use of my laptop, since he can email his friends and exchange goofy google docs images and play games from his phone, rather than my stuff. Otherwise, I’d be tempted to get him his own computer for school, but he can do pretty much anything except actual paper writing on his phone.**

Once we’d crossed that divide, one of our old phones vs a new one was as easy as pre-ruggedized case and waterproofing.

The parental controls are, honestly, still a necessity – the kid is 11. We’ll have to play with them in terms of content, but I’m really mostly in this for data usage and actual spending of money for apps and in games. But there are also liability issues – he’s 11. Any TOS he breaks, anything stupid he does – aside from the fact that I want him to learn not to do these things, we’re also on the hook for it. And really, there’s stuff out there that he doesn’t want to see, yet. So, I’m on board with that, provisionally.

Tracking is mostly for if he loses the thing. I have absolutely no intention of ever using it to actually see where he is on a snooping basis. If he was due home 3 hours ago and isn’t answering anything, then hell yes, I’ll fire that thing up – I’m not so principled about this that I’ll not use a resource at our disposal if there is one. But the statistical likelihood of that being necessary is significantly less than that of the phone itself slipping out of his bag on the bus and falling underneath a seat. (No, I don’t have any actual statistics at hand. I am not even the slightest bit ashamed.)

So, this afternoon, we are going to go get our 11-year-old what is essentially a super computer that fits in a pocket.

Welcome to the 21st century of upper-middle class parenting.

Part 2: So how do you use this thing?

My thoughts, before we actually acquired the phone, were that we would sit down over the weekend with our son and iron out some mutually determined guidelines. I don’t want to go totally “awesome mom’s 18 rules for her son’s use of the iPhone *she* owns” on the kid, but we do need a basic framework here for what constitutes (in)appropriate use, what can result in surrendering the phone (if I’m really honest, the discipline opportunities may have helped push me over the edge, since sending my child to his room is getting more and more useless), what (not) to do on the internet, etc. I wanted him to generate as many of the guidelines as possible, because I want him to feel invested in the process, like this is something we are doing together and something that we are all participants in, whether his dad and I can really keep up or not, and not a bunch of arbitrary rules passed down by fiat. My hope is that over the years, this will help him feel comfortable coming to us with concerns about online activity and keep lines of communication open. Wow, that’s a lot of parent-blogger jargon.

So, how did this work out?

Well, to start, it was kind of fun to go into the store and tell the guy that we wanted XYZ phone style in one of each color. But that’s not really the point.

His dad gave him the phone when he was late picking him up for the last day of camp…thanks to the appointment at the phone store running long. They mostly discussed images and consent – don’t take pictures of people without clothes on, don’t post or send pictures of people without their consent, don’t make fun of other people using images. When I backstopped this conversation by asking what they’d talked about, he was able to repeat everything back and clearly understood the point. Sort of. Since he doesn’t actually use social media yet, it went a little over his head.

I have to confess, though, that the deep insightful convo I envisioned just hasn’t really happened. Instead, we’re all kind of learning as we go along, which is really how our family seems to work best. Maybe it’s because I’m a lawyer and I deal with official written guidelines all the time, I just don’t deal with them well at home. It feels too much like work, perhaps. Meanwhile, he has the basic outline of expectations, most of which we’ve dealt with as they came:

Sign pictured not actually from tween's school. (via Flickr user touring_fishman)
Sign pictured not actually from tween’s school. (via Flickr user touring_fishman)
  • The aforementioned photo/social media guidelines.
  • He has to follow school rules, which means the phone is off during school hours and he keeps it in his backpack, not his pocket (this also safeguards it from falling out of said pocket).
  • He’s expected to out the phone down during face to face conversation.
  • He has access to our Amazon apps account for the purpose of downloading games we have purchased, but he does not know the password to make actual purchases.
  • The phone is password protected with a password we all know. It also has the aforementioned parental controls and tracking and we are completely up-front about this with him. His dad has even put stickers stating that on the back in the hopes of dissuading any peer-thievery. The flip side of the tracking is that we’ve agreed that we will only use it in an emergency, not to actually track his movements, unless he gives us reason to do so.
  • In that last eventuality, he would probably have to hand over the phone. Much like on our recent camping trip when he left it lying out on the cooler at our campsite when we left for several hours (thankfully one of us realized it and tossed it in the car, something that us 40-something parental types later forgot as we frantically tried to find it because tracking hadn’t been enabled yet). He’s had to hand it over when he wouldn’t stop playing a game at bedtime. Generally speaking, we’ve been tying phone related discipline to phone related infractions.

All in all it’s going well so far. I anticipate this list of guidelines changing vastly when two things happen: 1. More of his friends have their own cell phones; and 2. They discover social media. But these work for us right now and things seem to be working out so far. He’s getting a better idea of appropriate usage and how to use the phone to interact with others. And it’s fun to exchange silly texts with him.

* It turns out that this is the advice of Rosalind Wiseman, author of the book Masterminds and Wingmen, and my new guru on how to speak tween boy. I’m still reading the book, but I happened to start reading the mobile phone chapter right after we entered this brave new world. So far so good.

** Something I evidently didn’t need to worry about because every single 6th grader in our district is being issued an iPad. Likewise every 2nd grader. And the 9th graders get MacBook Airs. For serious.

Featured image by Flickr user mikecogh.

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

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  1. We gave our daughter a tablet for her 7th birthday. We didn’t get the cheapest kiddie tablet, we didn’t get her an I Pad either. Part of the idea was that she’d have something that is also a tool, not just a toy and that she’d learn how to use these devices while she’s young because she’s quite definitey growing up in a world full of them.
    Me wanting my tablet back was also part of it.
    With 7 and a tablet things are also easier for us: She doesn’t know what an Amazon account is yet, and I wished they’d offer sub-accounts because not everything I buy is suitable for children, therefore I control the downloads manually.
    We’ve had the phone conversation a few times and my reply was: No phone until your age reaches a double digit number.
    Your meassures seem pretty sensible and reasonable to me. I cannot understand how parents can give their grade schooler a smartphone with no controls whatsoever. My daughter’s school had to make it a rule that all sorts of smart devices need to be turned off. They didn’t have one because they never thought it necessary to have such a rule in a school for 6-10 yo. The they ran into the problem of kids showing other kids hardcore porn and animal torture videos during recess.
    I’d report the parents to the police and CPS if they’d show it to my kid.

    1. I definitely think tablets are the way to go as a first device. We went the Kindle fire route kind of by default, but they are not specifically dedicated to any particular family member (other than the kids get the one with the cracked screen). And yes! I really wish Amazon would allow sub-accounts. Even just reading material – I’ve had to frantically delete library books from the carousel more than once.

      I cannot even imagine to what degree my head would explode if I heard about that sort of playground nastiness, but I know it happens. The worst I remember hearing about at my son’s school is a bunch of older kids who got a kick out of scaring the first and second graders by telling them Slenderman stories, which a lot of parents had never even heard of until their 7 year olds were coming home with terrified questions.

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