There are over 20 children in my 9-year-old daughter’s class and according to her, she is the only one among them who does not own a cell phone or tablet and is the only one who is not on WhatsApp and Facebook. According to her, all of her classmates message each other regularly, download all kinds of games on their phones and tablets, and of course, understandably she seems to feel a little left out. She does in fact have access to a cell phone at home, on which she can play certain pre-selected games. She also has access to a lap top for which she is the primary custodian among her sisters. On it, she can play select games and conduct research for school projects or other areas of her personal interest, such as sports. However the powerful forces of peer pressure tell her that she needs to be on social media and needs also to have her own devices complete with messaging apps, hence the ongoing pining – “Mommy, I need a phone.”
Now nothing is wrong with enabling children to use technology for both education and leisure but the question that parents like me need to ask ourselves is when is the right time to grant such access and what level of access should be granted. When we investigated the required minimum age for registration on WhatsApp and Facebook, we found that users had to be 16-years-old and 13-years-old respectively, which makes me question how ‘all’ of her classmates could be using the applications. I suspect that she used the term “all” rather loosely, but any underage child using the technologies may be unlawful at worst and dishonest at best. Both scenarios are a cause for concern. The revelation about the age requirement therefore means that my daughter will have to wait a while longer before we allow her to set up her own accounts. In the interim, she can continue to call her friends from the phones at home and hang out with them at school and on play dates at home. She can also continue to type Whats App and SMS messages for me when I am driving!
She can also continue a range other activities that allow for meaningful, fun interaction with her friends. Activities such as playing outdoor games like ‘dandy-shandy’, baseball, one-two-three red-light and cricket endlessly in the yard; watching her favourite age-appropriate DVDs and TV shows and playing indoor games such as Boy Girl, Scrabble and Chinese Checkers with her friends. The last time I checked, these games were all still pretty exciting for her and her friends – the only ‘trouble’ was that as parents we have to put more effort into it. It is much easier to give your child a tablet or phone and leave them alone to play for hours. No need to arrange with other parents for your child’s friends to come over, no need to clean up the house, to prepare snacks for visitors or to spend emotional or physical energy engaging with them or their friends. But the easier route shortchanges our kids.
For it is largely through traditional social interactions and games that certain graces and the vagaries of emotional intelligence are learnt and practised. It is in really listening and looking at each other than we truly get to know people. Messaging and playing games online are fun but not the real deal if you ask this parent. Yes, giving the kids games also helps to keep them occupied and grant mommy and daddy some peace and quiet, but at what expense?
Honestly, I am tired of seeing big-enough kids walk into certain spaces such as offices, hair dressing parlours and people’s homes with their heads buried in their phones and tablets and earplugs fastened firmly, leaving no room for a gracious and mannerly ‘good afternoon’. Those are apparently the mores and habits of my generation and beyond. Today’s kids are too busy messaging each other or subway surfing online to say hi and to notice the smell of the cookies baking in the kitchen and the dog wagging its tail at their feet.
And so in response to my 9-year-old’s desire for a phone, I have said ‘not yet’. We have discussed a timeline, we have discussed instances when I will currently let her temporarily carry a phone such as on camping trips or field trips to communicate with her family in the case of an emergency, but a phone of her own with Whats App and Facebook will have to wait until we (mommy and daddy) believe the time is right for her and when she has reached the prescribed, permissible age for downloading the various social media applications. Of course every child is different and no one size fits all in terms of access to various technologies but certainly we must ensure that our children have a good healthy balance of traditional social interaction while they get ‘social’ online.