Kids without cell phones


How old were you when you got your first cell phone? I was 25, it was a gold-ish colored flip phone, and it had a little antenna you could pull up out of the corner. (Though did that actually improve the reception? I’m not at all sure it did.) I got it for work - I had a new job in consulting - and felt great using it. It was a dumb phone of course, those being the days before smart phones, and texting existed but was used seldom because you had to push each key multiple times to get the correct letter and painstakingly spell your word. Back then, texting was definitely not faster than calling.

That was 2002 and I’ve had probably five phones since then. I bet you have too. The evolution of the cell phone and its role in our lives is also fascinating to reflect on. I remember a conversation five or six years after I got that first phone with a friend who had, of all things, a camera built into hers, and I said, “What do you need a camera in your phone for? That seems like overkill.” She told me how useful it was, like if her husband was at the store trying to figure out which lightbulbs they needed. I remember thinking, “Hmmm. OK, maybe.”

Imagine if your cell phone didn’t have a camera today! Hard to even fathom

We have four kids, the oldest two being middle schoolers, and so far none of them have phones. They are squarely in the minority in the public school that they attend, as I’m sure you can imagine. So far each kid has been able to cite only one other person in their grade (7th and 8th) who doesn’t have a phone. When we moved back to America this summer I was a little nervous about how things would go for them, being the new kids to town and not having phones - the de facto modern day connection tool. But my husband and I weren’t ready to go there yet, and happily their not having phones hasn’t been as big of a deal as I thought it might be.

For one thing, the middle school is very strict about no phones during school hours; it’s not until the final bell rings and the kids are exiting the building that all the phones come out. This means that during the school day, our kids don’t feel different from their peers. For another thing, our kids have figured out lots of alternate ways to connect with friends (and with us) outside of having their own phones. They use Skype video or message on their kindles; they message on Dispatch, a video game platform. At home they borrow our old iPhones (one is the white phone on the top of the pile in the header photo) to use apps they need like Duo Lingo for Spanish, or if they need camera capability. On occasion we’ll let them take an old phone out with them, and they can get on wireless and contact us using WhatsApp.

These measures are working for us for now (though of course my children would prefer to have their own phones if the option were theirs). I don’t know how long they’ll work, but we’ll stick with them as long as we can. As I wrote before, I’d like to preserve the “freedom of brain” that comes with a low-screen life for as long as possible for my kids. But for me another central factor is my own management of my children’s screen time, something that already seems hard to do well in our daily life (even without their having phones). There is always a pull for my kids to be on whatever screen options are present - iPad, video games, TV, kindles. Screens are just so darn enticing! The prospect of having more in-home screens to oversee and maintain boundaries for feels exhausting to me. I’ve heard from other mothers that boundary-discussions and arguments over the amount of time kids spend on their phones, and what they’re doing on those phones, is common fare. I can easily imagine that this would be true at our house if our kids had their own phones, and I’m just not ready to bite that off yet.

I know I’m not alone in my hesitation of jumping, with my kids, full force into the screen/phone world of today. But I although I also know there are many ways and paces to handle screens - there is no one set right way. (If only there were, then we could all just do it and be done with it.) What secrets have you found that have helped your kids handle screens responsibly, or that have preserved household harmony? For those of you whose middle-schoolers have phones - how has it gone, and what advice would you give to other middle school parents?


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