Q: I made a big mistake giving my children smartphones at too early an age and it has destroyed my relationship with them. Will you please tell your readers to think twice about giving phones to their children so young?
Okay, Madonna didn’t really write this question. But she has recently expressed the precise sentiments contained in it.
In an interview with Vogue (“Strike a pose”) magazine, the famous pop star and mother of six said, “I made a mistake when I gave my older children phones when they were 13.”
If you’re a parent, you might be laughing. 13? According to the latest research from Influence Central, a child gets his first smartphone at 10-years-old. By the age of 12, half of all children already have their own social media accounts.
What that is doing to children is becoming both well-documented and alarming. The national campaign Wait Until 8th − which advocates waiting until 8th grade before giving a child a smartphone, a grade both Madonna and I agree is too early − notes the accretion of research showing what can go wrong when children get smartphones too soon: the phones interfere with learning and good grades. They can become addictive. They aid in the increase of anxiety and depression. They impair sleep. They expose children to sexual content.
But perhaps most interestingly, Wait Until 8th asserts that smartphones can also hinder parent-child relationships. Many parents have found the phone “destructive” to their relationship.
“The parent-child relationship suffers,” the Wait Until 8th website says. “Children are often inattentive with the constant distraction the phone brings. Face-to-face relationships dwindle as children shift their time and energy to investing in their online ‘friendships.’”
But Madonna isn’t relying on research in preventing her 13-year-old son from having a phone. She is relying on her experience with her own children.
“I made a mistake when I gave my older children phones when they were 13,” she said in the Vogue interview. “It ended my relationship with them, really. Not completely, but it became a very, very big part of their lives.”
She said, “They became too inundated with imagery and started to compare themselves to other people and that’s really bad for self-growth.” As a teacher, I agree.
Madonna plans to hold off on giving her youngest child a smartphone “as long as possible.” For what it’s worth, I applaud that decision (as well as her vocals on “Live to Tell” and “Ghost Town”) and can echo her experience with my own.
I didn’t let my children have the equivalent of a smartphone until they were in high school. You would think that would be old enough to ward off the negative influences of the glowing screens, but it wasn’t. Once the Pandora’s box was opened, it released a stream of negative repercussions.
They were whisked away into a very different world, a shadowy world with people, ideas and values that were far removed from our blessedly idyllic family. They glued themselves to the screens at almost every opportunity.
In the span of just a few months, their books were replaced with SnapChat. Watching a movie together in the family room was replaced by video games and online streaming by themselves. Their friendships shifted from hanging out and sleepovers to marathon texting sessions.
Worst of all, personally, it changed their relationship with their parents. The transition from childhood to adolescence had previously been a dream come true. We had an open, warm relationship. We enjoyed being with one another, laughing together and doing the same activities.
But the Pandora’s Box changed all that. A cold distance gradually set in − one different and more insidious than the typical teen breakaway from parents − and I didn’t know how to stop it. I analyzed all the possible reasons: were we too lax with them? Too strict? Too protective? Not protective enough?
By the time I realized that the Pandora’s Box was mostly to blame, it was too late to put the genie back into the bottle.
I was so certain that I had waited long enough that their maturity would help them monitor and moderate. I was confident that they were firm in their values. Yet the Box still transformed everything. I neglected to consider a critical truth about the digital domain: the things which had always been so important to all of us − things like faith and family − had no relevance or reinforcement in my children’s shadowy new online world.
As with Madonna, it didn’t destroy our relationship, but it fundamentally altered it. When all of the things that tether you together are gradually pulled apart, how could it not?
Don’t make your own mistakes. Learn from Madonna’s. Learn from mine. Wait as long as you reasonably can to hand over to your children their very own Pandora’s Box.