Parenting in the Cyber Age: A Post With More Questions Than Answers

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.

4 replies on “Parenting in the Cyber Age: A Post With More Questions Than Answers”

Mom of an 18 year old MAN (senior) and 14 year old boy (8th grade) married to a comp sci techie.

Decisions were made by him. I’m the no person.

With #1 son I said no on cell phone until middle school. We’ve always had a PC (hubby is a trader and uses computers at work), and let #1 use it in elementary school to “calm his ADHD” and nurture his natural techie skills. Gave him a laptop in middle school because it helped his schoolwork. He has owned all gaming systems at some point (Xmas and birthday gifts from the extended family or he has earned money to purchase). Despite my personal issues I knew it was going to be a constant in #1 son’s life. He already knows he wants to work as a game designer/programmer.

#2 we were more lenient. Had to be, he saw what #1 has. However he is not a techie, not interested as much in cyberspace. Gave him a laptop in middle school which he uses at his private school. He mostly cyber chats and I know all his friends.

We’re upper middle class and can afford these things. Husband has made the decisions and is pro computers and pro tech devices all the way. I’m outvoted. My well off in-laws give their kids expensive “toys” and so does our community (neighborhood and schools).

Both kids have Fb accounts, #1 in high school, #2 in fifth grade. They opened them on their own, their friends lied about the DOB (common practice). Husband is “friends” with them. I refuse to FB.

If I protest too much, my kids will alienate me. It’s already a rough time, teen boys, so I trust that they are doing right.

We’ve been fortunate they haven’t been cyberstalked or cyberbullied or participated in any of that.

I don’t have a policy/plan, we just played it by ear. Most of our decisions were based on a combination of “Are they responsible enough for this?” and the adults thinking “If he had a cell phone we could call right now and ask _____.”
Our policy about Facebook was: not till you’re 13, because that’s one of FB’s requirements anyway, and you have to friend us. When we found out that one of the boys had a second page just for friends, it was deleted and he was denied computer access for a month or two (I can’t remember). We also have access to their internet history and e-mail, but we’ve only taken advantage of that three times in as many years. (They are almost fifteen, by the way.) I think they understand that we respect their privacy, until they give us a really good reason not to. When I say really good reason, I mean “You told this girl you were 17 years old, just out of juvie, and an apprentice body piercer in the family tattoo shop to impress her?” That incident resulted in total media lock-down for quite some time as well as a lecture on the types of girls who would be impressed by that sort of thing.

I’m sure I could turn this into a response post of my own, so I’ll try and keep it brief. My lone child is 13, but my youngest sister is only 17, so I’ve been dealing with these questions for a while.

We’re not particularly wealthy though we live in a very upper crust suburb of Philly. Many of our choices were already made for us just in regards to what we could and couldn’t afford. Lots of her friends received cell phones and iphones and laptops at a fairly young age. We were very honest with Minibelle that these weren’t exactly priorities for us, and she took that pretty well.

She’s had an email account since she was about 11 and she got on Facebook this past year, and she does some sorta-online games. The rule for all of this is that I have access to all her user account names and passwords. Not, and I emphasize this, because I wish to spy on what she’s doing, but because she is underage and if there was a problem, I need to be able to check up on her. I know that she knows that I’m reasonable with this — the only time I’ve ever deleted stuff from her facebook account I explained it to her beforehand and warned her that I felt it was inappropriate. (It was one of those ‘lover of the day’ auto generating memes, which I maintain is not appropriate for 12 and 13 year olds.)

We gave her a cell phone when she was 12ish, but it was an old phone of ours, with prepaid minutes. If she used up her minutes, she used them up, and that was her problem until I renewed them. I think that’s helped keep her usage reasonable after we moved her onto the family plan for her birthday this year.

As for the higher end electronics, she got a PSP as a Christmas present one year and an ipod mini, which I don’t think of as any different than the walkman I got when I was kid. But the expensive stuff? Ipads and laptops and tvs? Not a chance until she’s older and more responsible. She can share until then.

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