With our first child, my husband and I had pretty strict rules. No TV until age 2. Bedtime at 8 pm, firm. Then our next kid came along, and all that flew out the window. Our second watched her big brother's favorite cartoons from her bouncy seat, and bedtime became more like 8-ish.
All parents of two know the second child gets perks sooner than the first does. So while my oldest, 12, got his first phone and began texting friends at the start of this school year (he's a sixth-grader), his sister's asking for the same privilege—specifically, to use iMessage on her iPod Touch—even though she's a whole three years younger than he is. Then again all kids, whether they have an older sib or not, are tech-savvy at increasingly younger ages. How else to explain how well my 2-year-old can deftly swipe her way around an iPad?
But back to my dilemma at hand: How young is too young to allow your child to start texting friends? My son was ambivalent about messaging pals, but our second, who's nearly 9, is eager for her dad's and my permission. "All my friends do!" she said. I checked around, and indeed, her girl buddies are texting and FaceTiming.
I talked to a friend who's been there, and this was her take: "It starts out innocently enough. You check her messages, and in the beginning it's a lot of, 'Hey. 'Sup.' And you think, OK, this is all pretty boring.
"But you can't get lax," my friend continued, "because then they start sending pictures. And at first it's just animals, but then the next thing you know, their friends are writing or sending inappropriate things." I was thinking of another mom pal whose fifth-grade daughter and her friends initiated a contest on Instagram to determine the prettiest girl in their circle. Their moms moaned a collective, "Ugh!" and promptly shut it down. Another mother I know has a blanket "no selfie" rule for her kids—no selfies of any kind, ever. Their house, their rule.
Right now, my third-grader just doesn't want to be left out of deep discussions about Littlest Pet Shop and the like, and I sympathize. Texting is a way to socialize, after all, and I know it's inevitable. (So far, her only texts have been occasional ones to me at work, from the babysitter's phone.) Today's children are "digital natives"—as Hanna Rosin wrote in this eye-opening story last year in The Atlantic, the "touch-screen generation" has never known a world without electronics, so no wonder my kids' gen and mine will likely never see exactly eye to eye on what's too much. I'm hardly anti-tech myself (I sleep with my iPhone beside my bed), but it feels all too personally familiar when I read that studies show kids ages 8 to 18 are spending more time on their electronic devices than any other activity. As Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D, writes eloquently in her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Families in the Digital Age: Parents and children may be enjoying "swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet," but they are losing "a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes."
We're a happily pro-tech family, but my kids are on their devices plenty already. (Ditto.) Allowing my daughter to text a moment sooner than she needs to feels like one more pull down the deep digital rabbit hole. (Related: She also wants a YouTube channel.) Selfishly speaking, it will be one more thing for her dad and me to monitor. And if kids continue to adapt these practices at younger ages, at what age do you absolutely draw the line? In a few years will our toddler be messaging friends about what they're wearing to kindergarten graduation?
I'm curious: How old were your kids—or how old do you think they'll be—when you allow them to text, Instagram, and use other social media to keep connected with friends? Do you, or will you, check up on their activity?
I'd <3 to hear ur thoughts on this. ;)
Controlling Your Child's Digital Interactions
"R U raising a Digitally Healthy Child?" Take this Parents quiz.