Christmas has come and gone, and suddenly, around coffee with girlfriends, the subject comes up: When should we let our school-age children get email accounts? When should they be allowed to text or get their own mobile? Is an iPod Touch too much for a young child to handle? Holy crap, when did our kids get old enough for all of this?? I smiled and mostly listened, because my kids aren’t quite old enough. My kids (ages 5.5 & 2.5 respectively) are content to play a few free games on our iPhones and iPad. Sure, they’d love their own, but um, they’re 5.5yrs & 2.5yrs old. But my friends with children ages eight through twelve are finding themselves in quite the pickle.
I remember starting to communicate with friends privately, without my parents in the room, when I was in the third grade. That was the year we moved from the east coast to the midwest, and I had a pen pal from my old neighborhood. We wrote each other letters, probably about once a month. By fourth and fifth grade I had a few pen pals, children of my parents’ friends and girls I had met a Girl Scout camp. I have no idea, now, what we really talked about, just that I probably wrote a letter or two week to whomever, and sent it via the US Postal service all the way through high school. I have no idea if my mom ever snooped around in my room to read the letters. I doubt that she did (or at least not very often).
In some way, I equate sending an email to what I did as a kid. Okay, it’s typing, so kids aren’t developing their handwriting (that’s another rant for another day). But it’s still (hopefully) a way for children to express themselves to others, privately. I remember when I was older, writing a letter to a friend in high school every other evening. I don’t know how or why it started, but she wrote to me, then I wrote to her, and passed the note back in the same envelope. We then spent the semester writing the date on the envelope, and writing at least a page or two of something or other back and forth. I have no idea now what we wrote about (ok, a lot of it was about a crush I had on a boy we code named Mr. X), but again, I was writing pages nightly. How can writing pages nightly be bad? Is typing a page to your friend nightly a bad thing?
The third grade is also the year I know I memorized my best friend’s phone number, and we started calling each other on the phone. If in the third grade I could call my best friend, should third graders today be allowed to text message each other? Is it the same thing? Or is it a different beast all together?
Is it different because it’s the Internet, and verbal communication isn’t taking place? Is it different because text conversations can be fragmented and sort of an all-day constant flow of banter instead of one fifteen minute conversation? Is a child giving out a phone number different for texting purposes different than a child giving out a phone number for talking purposes?
I know question is this– on whose device is the child emailing or texting? Does she have unlimited access to a laptop or a smartphone or a cell phone? Is she using her parents? As a parent, do you want to hear your phone buzz every five minutes all evening long with text messages for your child? Do you want your child reading your text messages because she’s checking your phone for her missed texts?
My husband and I have already talked about some of this, and we’ve formulated a plan for at least a few of these issues. In our perfect world of cooperative children and unlimited resources, we’ll have a computer in a central family location for the children to use. It might be “mine” “his” or “theirs”, but the idea is that they aren’t going to be in their rooms with unlimited access to the Internet without supervision. When the time for a cell phone comes, it’s going to have to be presented as “this is a phone for you to use as a privelage”, not “here’s your phone”. That phone that she gets to use? It’ll be docked (probably next to the family computer) unless it’s in use.
Ok, that’s as far as we’ve gotten.
Parents with kids older than mine, how have your navigated this minefield? What are your concerns for your child to have private ways for friends to contact him or her? What sort of solutions have you found that work for your family? I’ll be copiously taking notes. Of course, by time my youngest hits this age, we’ll probably all be talking exclusively in mind-speak.