Last weekend, we took the boys to a local frozen-yogurt place — a treat because, after we pushed Daniel hard to study for his science quiz on the parts of a cell (which, as an aside, seem to have more parts than they did when I first learned about nuclei and mitochondria), he got a 100%! While we sat there, me with my salted-caramel yogurt (there is a God, by the way, because of caramel), a handful of young girls walked in. And then another handful. And another.
Turns out they were all together. Our first thought, when we ascertained that only one set of parents had accompanied the group? Maybe this was the cast of new reality show: “My 14 Daughters!” They all looked the same, same leggings, same boots, same long straight hair. And the same smartphones. All. Of. Them.
Turns it was a sleepover birthday party group (I was trying to calculate what the parents of the birthday child were about to shell out in sold-by-the-ounce fro-yo), but the phones! When the first subset of girls passed our table, iPhones in sparkly pink cases in hand, my husband said, “That’s probably $1,000 worth of phones!” And that was just the first group.
I’m going to guess that these girls were somewhere between 12 and 14. They seemed older than the girls in Daniel’s fifth-grade class, who are 10 or 11, anyway. And that puts them smack in the “you get a cellphone!” demographic.
They get. But do they need?
I say no.
My sons ask “when” they’ll get cellphones – and they seem to be laboring under the assumption that 11 is “the time.” But why? A few years ago, a friend’s son reported to her that when he got to middle school, he would get “a girlfriend, and a cellphone,” as though they were handing both out at the doors to seventh grade. The fact that this boy thought so, and my boys believe so (minus the girlfriend, because yuck) leads me to believe that the “you get a cellphone!” demographic is one of those things that wormed its way into the ether, to the point where every kid believes it’s true, and many parents go along believing it’s true and also a necessity.
Yesterday, I was listening to a radio interview* with author Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist whose book Alone Together just came out in paperback. I happened to tune in as she was talking, to NPR’s Fresh Air host Teri Gross, about kids (and adults) with smartphones. Always being with either their parents or their phones (she calls it “the tethered child”) as they grow from childhood into young adolescence and beyond, says Turkle, leaves kids unable to be … just alone. From the show, which aired yesterday:
Children are getting these phones earlier and earlier. These are years when children need to develop this capacity for solitude, this capacity to feel complete playing alone. If you don’t have a capacity for solitude, you will always be lonely, and my concern is that the tethered child never really feels that sense that they are sort of OK unto themselves…
But let me get back to the notion of “need.” Okay, kids are out and about all the time, yes? They “need” to be able to be in touch with you at all times. But do they? I challenge you to tell me what any of those fro-yo girls with their long hair and their leggings and boots needed their phones for. They were with this other family – would there be an emergency while they were sleeping over their friend’s house? I mean, an emergency that couldn’t be taken care of by that set of parents, or their phone?
Or did they “need” their phones so they could text and eat frozen yogurt at the same time?
This is what I was thinking that night, and it’s what I’ve been thinking all along, as my kids grin and ask when they’ll get “their” cellphone. Not soon. Not when they’re 11. (Interestingly, Turkle told Teri Gross that since she first wrote the book, she had to make a revision for the paperback version; the magic 11 age has dipped to where it’s not odd for 8 or 9 year olds to “need”, and get, cellphones.) I honestly don’t see the need, but I do invite you to tell me where you think I’m wrong. Like my kids are, I myself am home, most of the time (living, working, everything-else-ing). I have a cellphone. For the life of me, right at this moment, I don’t know where it is. I make good-faith attempts to find it before I leave the house, in case (of actual emergency: a car breakdown, say). But in regular life? I don’t need it. I’d like a smartphone, but I don’t need one.
Which brings me back to the alone-versus-lonely thing evocatively spoken about by Turkle. We all laugh and talk a fun game about teens tethered (that word again!) to their smartphones. How they can’t keep their fingers off the screen, their thumbs never still, even if they are physically in the presence of others. But have you seen adults doing the same thing? I bet you have – like I have, most frighteningly in cars beside me at red lights. They can’t put them down! Why? I understand the parent who is texting her husband from the soccer game, because said husband is with the other kid at the football game. I get that. But I don’t get (personally, I stress here) the parent fiddling around on an iPhone just to fill time, all the time. Some of these parents, it appears to my eyes, feel less, well, alone with that phone in their hands.
Our kids don’t need it, and neither do we. Feel free to argue me out of my case, but don’t tell my kids.
*Bonus reader points and a Mean Moms Rule t-shirt if you can count all the times I’ve blogged about something I heard on the radio!