We’ve given a lot of thought to the age at which parents should consider giving a child their first connected device – think iPod, tablet, phone or gaming console. A fully functioning computer is usually not the first device that a child can call her own.
We’ll admit that one of our primary considerations in evaluating the topic has been safety, specifically predator risk and exposure to cyberbullying. Others include managing time spent online and controlling access to age-inappropriate content and other users.
An unfortunate thing happened in our family over the holidays that opened my eyes to another important consideration, and I thought I’d share.
My daughter, we’ll call her Kate, is 8 years old and until Christmas, she was without her own personal device, although there were phones and tablets around the house that she had highly supervised access to from time to time. Around Christmas, one of my teenage boys was due for a phone upgrade, but his older model iPhone 5C was still functional. We decided to transfer his phone contract to his new phone and give the old phone to Kate to use, as she would an iPod – no phone capability, Wi-Fi only. We carefully monitor which apps, games, videos and websites she can access, which music she can listen to and above all who can contact her. Her “phone” doesn’t make the trip into her bedroom or to school. For the most part it has gone smoothly.
My brother and family, who live about 8 hours away, were at our house for a few days over New Year’s. They have a daughter, we’ll call her Mary, who is 12 and has her own phone. Over the course of the visit, despite the fact that they only see each other about once a year, Kate and Mary became fast friends.
For a couple of weeks after the visit ended Kate and Mary were in contact via text or Facetime daily, and were getting along great. Then the following happened:
While they were in the middle of a Facetime conversation, Kate’s phone battery died, with no charger nearby. When they were able to reconnect later, the conversation went something like this:
Mary: You hung up on me. (a reasonable-ish conclusion, though not the case)
Kate: No I didn’t. My phone died. You’re a liar. (unbeknownst to me, in Kate’s 8-year old mind a liar is anyone who says something that’s not true, regardless of intent)
Mary: You called me a liar. I’m never talking to you again.
That was almost a month ago, and despite the fact that we parents have talked to each of our respective daughters, they haven’t spoken since. We’re sure the girls will patch things up, but there were a couple of important lessons in here, for us at least.
- Online communication can be more nuanced and difficult to navigate than face-to-face conversations. Pre teens might not be ready.
- Pre teens’ conflict resolution skills can be poorly developed or nonexistent.
We as parents dropped the ball here. In addition to focusing on who Kate can talk to online, we should have focused on how she should be communicating. Perhaps some role-playing would have helped. Maybe we should have had her nearby when she was chatting with her cousin. Maybe she’s too young to text anyone except mom and dad.
In any case, the message is that once you’ve decided that your child is old enough, and emotionally mature enough, to own a device and more unsupervised communications, the job hasn’t ended. It is just getting started.
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