With digital technology and smartphones so ubiquitous, it is nearly impossible for parents to monitor and protect their children at every turn. That’s why caregivers must introduce concepts like digital safety, privacy, cyberbullying, phone etiquette, and more when giving kids their first phone.
Luckily, in First Phone: A Child’s Guide to Digital Responsibility, Safety, and Etiquette, author Catherine Pearlman, PhD, has created a guide for kids. The book speaks directly to them about being safe and thoughtful while using a smartphone or other digital device.
Dr. Pearlman is a licensed clinical social worker, family coach, and parenting expert who has worked with children and families for over twenty-five years. She spoke with Girls That Create about her new book and the steps parents can take to help ensure their child uses devices responsibly (Q&A interview edited for length and clarity).
Giving Kids Their First Phone
What inspired you to write First Phone?
A couple of things. The first thing was that, even before the pandemic, I saw that even the most conscientious parents could not keep up with what their children were being exposed to for various reasons. Either they’d put protections on their child’s phone only for the child to get around them, or their child saw concerning content on a peer’s phone at school or the bus, somewhere else.
It got me thinking that even parents who are incredibly conscientious and try to protect their child’s environment still find this all extremely challenging. For example, parents used to have time to think about how to discuss a tragedy, like a school shooting, with their kids. But now, with phones, our kids are learning about those tragedies when we are. Simply put, we can’t 100 percent shield them.
Fallout From the Pandemic
And then there’s the fallout from the pandemic, which has had repercussions, correct?
Right, exactly. Even when my son was done with school, his only way of socializing then was then to go back on the computer with his friends. And then he had to do his homework on the computer, so he was literally on the computer all day long. Before the pandemic, the instant messaging social platform Discord was not part of our daily lives, but it became a way for him to connect socially and has ever since.
All of these factors made me realize a book is needed for kids where they can learn for themselves how to make good decisions and choices with good, basic information. It was important to me that children could read it on their level, that it would make sense, and introduce them to a wide variety of device topics. As caregivers, we can’t expect our kids just to get the phone and have it all together. It will be a learning process for a device, in some form, that they’ll be using for the rest of their lives.
Kids Can Make Smart Choices
A line I appreciate in the book is that kids can make smart choices. As parents, we can have confidence in them, which can be hard to remember when we feel incredibly fearful about the world. Can you share more thoughts about that sentiment?
When they’re really young, we do everything for them, and that’s what we should be doing. We have to meet all of our children’s needs. But then, at some point in early elementary school, we have to start making a shift and give them a little bit more room to realize what they’re capable of achieving.
We’re growing them, also known as the zone of proximal development. We’re giving children something above what they can do now to develop their skills and independence so they can eventually become healthy, productive adults. But it takes a shift in parenting, and it’s hard for us. It’s tough because we think of love nowadays as doing for our kids, and we have to shift that. So I genuinely believe kids can make good choices when they’re trained well and given all the information. I also want kids to have opportunities to practice their learning and not worry so much about mistakes.
When discussing devices and parenting, a common thread is parents need to establish boundaries for themselves and serve as an example for their children.
Yes, I try to tell the parents gently that if you want your kids to have good habits, you have to model good habits. And honestly, we don’t always want to do some of the things we’re asking our kids to do, but I think it’s really important. Something that helps parents and children communicate is establishing what the expectations are. As parents, we have expectations in our heads, but we don’t share them with our children. It helps to have a lot of conversations about what is healthy and how we will practice good habits. And remember, expectations can evolve.
Talk to me about texting and digital etiquette. I feel that as adults, we’ve done this for so long that we forget conversations should happen with kids about the practice.
There are so many nuances to learn about texting and digital communication. Now and then, I’m even like, “Was that something?” No, of course, obviously it’s nothing, whatever. With children, they are still learning to recognize in-person social cues, and digital is on an entirely different level. I remember when my daughter first got her phone. Her friend texted something pretty important and emotional. My daughter wrote back, just a very twosecond reply, and I was like, “No, no, she’s going to read that as you don’t care, or that you’re angry, or something like that. You have to say more, use more words for her to understand that you are understanding and here to help her process whatever is going on.” And she was like, “Oh, okay.”And she wasn’t mad. She was learning.
Another point in the book is that our kids will make online mistakes and that we as parents need not fall apart when they happen. Can you elaborate?
Yes, when parents freak out, their kids stop telling them things. They’re still making the same mistakes; they’re just not telling you. And then really dangerous or harmful things can happen. Even if inside you’re going crazy as a parent and thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is bad,” it’s crucial to remain calm. Foster that communication because that’s what’s important. If they don’t tell you, who are they telling? Or what are they doing? You have no idea. They just go underground. For me, it was vital to emphasize that mistakes absolutely are going to happen, it’s part of life, and it’s no big deal. We need to rebrand mistakes to allow kids to try more things, push themselves, and not always have to get it right.
Leaving Bits of Information Online
Let’s talk about one’s data and how that impacts the content we see. Why is it crucial to understand both while learning about phone usage?
You’re leaving a mark. I understand when people freak out about their data, limiting data privacy, etc. We live in a world where Amazon and Google know everything about me. They would know things about me, even if there was no other data available on me. Just Google alone and Amazon would be able to complete a perfect profile of who I am as a person, my family members, their ages, what their interests are, everything.
On the one hand, I don’t necessarily believe we should panic about this; it’s become part of our everyday lives. At the same time, I think kids, and adults, need to be mindful about where they’re leaving their data. And that the data can get out and be shared. Kids need to understand that many things that come across as content are advertisements. Deciphering all the lines, like an advertorial or favorite influencer sharing a new product, is tricky. Is this an article, or is this an ad?
As parents, we need to address evaluating content with our kids. What is their understanding of content? How do they interact with content? When they use social media, what are they leaving behind on the platform about themselves? And are they interactions they’d be proud of having? Colleges are Googling applicants, and employers are Googling applicants, so children need to understand everything they do is leaving bits of information. They need to be mindful of those bits of information. Parents must also recognize that the next big social media platform is just around the corner, so it’s imperative to equip kids with a solid foundation for thoughtfully acting online, regardless of where they interact with others.
Wait Until 21 for Public Social Media Accounts
In the book, you recommend children not have public social media accounts until they are 21. Why that suggestion?
Our kids’ brains develop into their late teens, early twenties, and up until 25 actually. They can’t make decisions based on future ramifications because their brains live here and now, thinking shortly. They’re not considering that they’ll look back and think, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that.” They just are living here and now. And yes, you can put something up then decide to take it down, but our kids need to understand anything can be screenshot and reshared someplace else. Many school scandals seem to begin with a picture getting out that is then shared among the student body. Even though it was taken down and posted on private settings, it still got around.
It’s unrealistic to think kids won’t be on social media, and many are before they’re 13. It is a reasonable guideline to tell them you can enjoy social media, but we’ll have an extra layer of protection to give you time to learn about using it. And that includes YouTube. Anything, where you can be social and interact with other people is social media. Comment, you can like, share; that’s social media.
Giving Kids Their First Phone?
And now the big question: when should you give your child their first cell phone? From the book, your view is it depends on the child.
Yes, it depends on the kid and the family situation. Kids get phones around 11 or 12 years old in my dream world. I believe you want them to get it before they’re fully into their social situation in their teen years because that gives space for them to learn about the devices before it’s crucial. You can engage with them at those ages; by 14, it’s much more difficult. Give yourself some wiggle room. Maybe it’s letting them get one social media app you can teach them how to use.
Some experts believe in waiting until 8th grade to get a phone, and that’s fine too. But I prefer them to learn about it from their parents because they’re already using their friends’ devices. They’re already on iPads. They’re already communicating through texting, through the computer. And some parents give their children phones earlier because it helps them stay in touch while trying to juggle work and school schedules. Homes don’t have landlines as they used to for those check-ins. But in those situations, there are super basic phones available; all they do is call or text.
Again, the type of phone device depends on the child. Do they take care of their belongings? Is there open communication between you and them? Have they shown good independence, and can they handle the responsibility and emotional vulnerability of having a phone? And you should still limit a child’s ability on their phone, especially in the beginning. This parenting experience is all a gradual build. It isn’t all-or-nothing. Remember, digital education is forever.
Last Advice on Giving Kids Their First Phone
What last pieces of advice would you like to share with parents and caregivers?
Talk to your kids about trusting their feelings and intuition. Tell them feelings can bubble up when something might not be okay. They feel a hesitation, but they click on a link anyway. Someone they don’t know offline is asking for their phone number or trying to meet alone and not in public. Empower your kids to trust that icky feeling that is telling them something is off and advise them to take a second, figure out the cause, and, if really concerned, come to you.
Also, go on your older kids’ phones and see what social media algorithms show them. You can do this together. Look at what suggestions social media apps like TikTok and Instagram are making. It’s eye-opening to see what your child is clicking on and liking and what the apps are pushing them. Then share your apps with your kids so they can see what you like and what apps send you. Discuss how the algorithms curate content differently for each person. Once we as parents show our kids what’s behind the curtain, they can see social media for what it is and stop clicking on things so mindlessly. Remember, the company’s goals are to keep all of us on their platforms for as long as possible.
Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW
Written by Erin Prather Stafford
Top images provided by Pearlman
Second image by Monstera for Pexels
Third image by ANTONI SHKRABA for Pexels
Fourth image by Mary Taylor for Pexels
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