Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Opinion

I gave my 12-year-old an iPhone. Here's what happened.

A year ago, we gave our son a used iPhone on his 12th birthday.

It's been "a challenge," as parents say these days. That's a euphemism for "nightmare." At one point, we hid every device we could find and shut down the Wi-Fi in our house.

Alas, it started innocently enough.

My son received the device in his first months at middle school, a mile walk from our home. Being able to reach him gave his father and me a sense of security. He pointed out his potential usefulness as a future phone toter: "What if you needed me to pick up milk at the grocery store?"

So sweet. Has he picked up milk over the past year? No.

But honestly, at his age he didn't really need a phone. He just wanted to be his own man in the world, something the phone symbolized. As a techie, he wanted to explore the world of apps — games and chats — as well as fuss over how to decorate it with edgy "skin." His enthusiasm was infectious.

My husband and I came up with a contract and figured that our rule-abiding, low-conflict child would generally comply.

So what has it been like?

It has been a constant cat-and-mouse game of securing the phone to make sure he hasn't snuck it into his bedroom for late night video chatting with friends or that it isn't nestled in the book he is supposed to be reading.

He has broken nearly every rule, repeatedly. He has changed the security password without telling us. He has downloaded apps, notably chat programs such as Kik and Snapchat, somehow, without knowing the Apple ID. He doesn't always respond to my texts. With each violation, he has lost his phone privilege.

And as for the loss of magical, disconnected time? That's happened, too.

During a spring camping trip, he seemed possibly ill. But it was phone withdrawal, his mood lifting only when the car headed home and he knew we would soon see his device.

And instead of playing in the surf this summer with his sister, my son seemed more content to sit in a beach chair with a towel over his head texting friends hundreds of miles away.

I was simply thankful he was not complaining so I could enjoy the day, having briefly relented to turn back on the data plan.

Many parents might ask at this point: Where's your back bone?

I know. I would have judged me just a few months ago not only for weakness and naivety, but also for parental malpractice. You are allowing the digital world to steal your kid's childhood, I would think.

But oh, my fellow parents, hold thy judgment.

Beyond the battles over the device and the weighing of pros and cons of teens with phones, my own reflections as a mother have brought me to this conclusion: He changed. As if on cue, my boy morphed into a teenager. His social world expanded. His sense of identity shifted. He started blow-drying his hair. My compliant son, eager to please, is no more. I didn't see it coming.

The phone, I can see now, was just the focal point of our power struggles and anxiety over that change. That battle has in recent months shifted to wearing a helmet while skateboarding. And it will be something else next, I know.

So now, I try to play the role of the dispassionate smartphone referee — semi-vigilant over his use, checking what he's doing with it on a monthly, but not a daily, basis. Issuing consequences routinely for rule-breaking.

And no matter what, I know where that thing is at bedtime.

Michelle Quinn is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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