Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Smartphones As Hand Grenades

Children and adolescents do not need to be plugged into social media

Petula Dvorak, writing in the Washington Post, comments on the horrifying tale of the 13-year-old Virginia girl who left home to meet someone she met on a dating app, and whose body was subsequently found. Two Virginia Tech students are in custody in connection with the murder. Dvorak:

Police told Nicole’s mom, Tammy Weeks, that they think the sweet-faced girl met Eisenhauer online.

The details of that are still unclear, but here’s what we know for sure: Nicole led an active, imaginary life online, meeting people on Kik, a messaging app that has been the bane of law enforcement officials for the past couple of years.

The app grants users anonymity, it allows searches by age and lets users send photos that aren’t stored on phones.

It’s popular with tweens and teens — and predators.

“Unfortunately, we see it every day,” said Lt. James Bacon, head of the Fairfax County Police Department’s child exploitation unit.

Every day. More:

This shadow world may be where Eisenhauer met Nicole, police told her mother. “It was some off-the-wall site I never heard of,” Weeks said in an interview with The Washington Post.

In the digital age, any parent can be Tammy Weeks. Smartphones have made it easier to keep tabs on our children — and much, much harder.

Teens have been outmaneuvering their mothers and fathers for decades. Back in my day, we told our parents we were spending the night at Melanie’s house when we were really at the Echo and the Bunnymen show an hour away, Ferris Buellering our way through adolescence.

But a lot of times, our parents won, because they caught us sneaking out. Or they called Melanie’s mom.

This world? The predators aren’t just hiding behind the Galaga machine at the arcade. They’re in our kids’ pockets, in their backpacks, in their bedrooms.

Whole thing here.  Dvorak says “it’s not okay to play the Luddite.” Oh? Why not? How have we managed to convince ourselves that our children need smartphones? It’s a lie. You know what it is? Parents don’t want to go against the flow. Every other parent is letting their kids have smartphones, and parents don’t want to be thought poorly of by their kids or the other parents. It really is hard to tell your kids “no” about this stuff, and to keep telling them no, every damn day. Believe me, I know this firsthand. I’m no model parent in this regard. But I’ll tell you this: our younger kids do not have smartphones, and will not have them, even though a lot of kids their age — 9 and 12 — have them. You can install things to protect your kids, and you should. But I cannot see any good reason why a child that young should have a smartphone.

Some dear friends are going through hell right now because of some social media mess their adolescent got mixed up in. It scares the crap out of me, to be honest. Everybody thinks it won’t happen to them. But it can, and it does. A lawyer friend, a mom, was telling me not long ago that she tried to show a relative of hers who lets his young kids have smartphones how easy it is for them to google extremely harmful content online. It did no good. Me, I think people like me, well-meaning parents, live in denial, telling ourselves that our kids aren’t going to misuse their smartphones, because we find it too hard to say no to them. (The same is true with television too, by the way.)

I don’t have the time or the skills to monitor everything my kids would get into on their smartphones, if they had them, and access to social media. But you know what? Why should I. They are nine and 12 years old. They have no business with smartphones, Instagram accounts, Facebook, Snapchat, and all the rest. They are not ready for those things. I certainly would not have been at that age. You give your kids a smartphone with access to the Internet and social media, you are handing them grenades.

It is hard as hell to be a countercultural parent. But what else is there?

UPDATE: I made a funny mistake here — read “Petula Dvorak” and wrote it as “Petula Clark.” Thanks to the reader who corrected me.

UPDATE.2: Reader B. Minich writes:

To be fair, what the author seems to mean by “it’s not OK to play the Luddite” seems to be more aimed at the baffling attitude some parents have that they’ll just let their kids have this technology they don’t understand, and all will be fine!

After all, not long afterwards, she encourages parents to be like the dad who took his daughter’s phone away, and stuck to his guns when charged with a crime for it. (Which is INSANE, btw.)

Though the story doesn’t seem to even address the idea of holding off on giving your kids smartphones, just knowing what’s happening and restricting them somewhat. So it does still fall short a bit.

I think this is fair, and I apologize for misreading Dvorak. Still, as you say, the assumption seems to be that the pressure to give your kid a smartphone is irresistible. When did we as a culture decide this? Yes, I am more than a little panicked about this, because I’m watching my poor friends go through something just short of catastrophic, and it all blew up so quickly.

UPDATE.3: James C. writes:

People are complacent and lackadaisical about it until it happens to them. And it will.

My niece doesn’t have a smart phone, but other kids at school do. She uses my sister’s smart phone from time to time to play games.

Well, last year we discovered her looking at hardcore pornography on it. She was barely 7 years old.

Who taught her to do that? Other parents’ kids, of course. And when my sister put a search filter on the phone, she still was able to do searches to view some pretty risqué stuff. Afraid some other kids would teach her how to get around the filters, my sister banned the phone. Period. How important is a smartphone? Enough to risk poisoning your kid’s mind and destroying his/her innocence? I don’t think so.

UPDATE.4: Reader Andrea, who is a professional journalist, writes:

I have spent the past eight months covering court cases and reading graphic and disturbing criminal affidavits, some about cases like these. After that, I would advise any parent I knew to strictly monitor their child’s phone and Internet use. If they don’t know how, it’s time to learn. Even more importantly, they should know where their teenagers are at and what they’re doing. It amazes me how many 12 to 14-year-olds are unsupervised and getting into trouble (late at night) that their parents apparently either didn’t care about or didn’t make an effort to prevent.

If I had kids, they would not have smart phones until they were in the late teens. If they did, I’d make sure they had a very detailed and graphic course ahead of time in the potential hazards and in how easily they could be charged with a crime for sexting or uploading photos of themselves, etc. I worry about what my 9-year-old nephew might have seen online.

UPDATE.5: I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m some model of perfection on this. I certainly am not! I’m thinking now of ways that I, as a father, fall short. I am thinking of ways that I tell myself everything is fine, that I don’t need to monitor this or that, that I should just trust because … I am too lazy and distracted to verify. I accuse myself of this, because it’s true. Just wanted to get that out there.



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