Why I Bought My Kid a Smartphone and Don’t Regret It

Look, I know it's not the thing you're supposed to do. But life comes at you fast and sometimes screen time isn't the biggest concern.

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The following is an excerpt from David McGlynn’s (excellent) new book One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons From an Unexpected Fatherhood, which tells the story of how the inconvenient but happy arrival of McGlynn’s sons forever altered his life.

Galen had been dropping hints for months, but that spring he abandoned subtlety for a more direct approach. Every request Katherine and I made of him he took as an opportunity to advance his cause. If I asked him to walk the dog, he’d say, “If I walk her, can I have a phone?”

If I asked him to make his bed: “It’s made already. Does that mean I can get a phone?”

If I asked him to hang up his jacket: “Hey, Dad! Did you see that my jacket has a pocket that’s the perfect size for a phone?”

“The thing is,” I finally said, “I’m not sure you need it. You hardly talk on the phone as it is.” I couldn’t honestly recall a single occasion when Galen had engaged in a telephone conversation with another person, with inquiries regarding his interlocutor’s general state of well-being followed by a discussion of anything constituting a subject. Whenever his friends called, he grunted out a few whats and huhs before handing the phone to Katherine or me to confer with the other kid’s parent. Even when his grandparents called— which they preferred to do via FaceTime so they could see as well as hear the kids—Galen mostly made goofy faces at the screen while my mom or mother-in-law repeated, “Are you there, honey? Can you hear me?”

Hayden, for what it’s worth, was an even worse conversationalist. He said neither hello nor goodbye. If he answered the phone, all you heard was the cessation of ringing followed by the eerie feeling you were no longer alone. When it was time to hang up, he’d simply walk away, leaving you blabbering into the void.

Galen had anticipated my doubts and prepared a rejoinder. “I don’t talk on the phone because I don’t have a phone,” he said. “If I had one, I’d talk more.”

“Who are you so desperate to call anyway?” I stared at him sideways for a few moments before the obvious struck me. “Is there a girl you like?”

“Not a girl,” he blushed. “My friends.” Now that the snow had melted, groups of sixth grade boys had begun roaming the neighborhood, showing up in packs at one another’s houses or gathering in the park to loiter beneath the picnic pavilion. Galen had stumbled across a group one afternoon while riding his bike home from Max’s. He asked why he wasn’t on the call list and was told, with a shrug, that no one had his number. Because, duh, he didn’thave a number.

“Please, can I get a phone?” he begged, his hands clasped near his chin.

I was sympathetic to the plight of his social life. Junior high was when organized playdates were shucked off in favor of hanging out, whether at a house or the park or in a parking lot. I could recall the sinking feeling of being left out. Regardless of how it happened, whether your so-called friends had deliberately sought to exclude you or had gone door to door trying to track you down, the leaving out was the same. I accepted that the boys would need cell phones eventually. I’d just been reluctant to take the final step.

A recent magazine assignment had given me cause to read several studies tying excessive cell phone use to increased rates of insomnia, depression, anxiety, and weakened cognitive functions, especially among teenagers. Sexting and cyberbullying, both of which occurred among adolescents with alarming frequency, could cause lasting psychological and social damage. A kid texting behind the wheel of a car might as well be drunk. Give a kid a cell phone and you give him a traveling porthole to the electronic jungle. Not only do they walk around with easy access to all the temptations and dangers of cyberspace, but wherever they go online, they leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs that could be stolen or used in some way against them. Our home computer had suffered a nasty virus attack last winter after Hayden tried to download a game from a dubious website, and it spooked me to think of all the nefarious things Galen might stumble across once he carried the Internet in his pocket. Or of the things that might stumble across him.

The perils of the Net, however, weren’t my primary worry. My Tuesday and Thursday classes ran just shy of two hours. For as long as I’d been teaching at the college, I’d maintained a habit of taking a ten-minute break at the halfway point to give the students a chance to stretch their legs and use the restroom, maybe dash to the campus center for a drink and a snack. The year I started, most students had cell phones, but very few had smartphones. They texted, but they didn’t text that much, nor did they use every free second to check Facebook and Twitter. As a result, they often spent the breaks talking—to one another but also to me. In this way, I learned about music they were listening to and books they were reading, about their concerns regarding larger, more consequential topics. The environment. The state of American politics. Their hopes and anxieties about the future. Lulled by the informal nature of the chatter and freed from the constraints of the lecture, the students often voiced their opinions in bracingly honest terms. Even the mousey oboist in the forest green turtleneck who assiduously avoided eye contact with me during class for fear of being called on could be coaxed out of her shell. On several occasions, this interstitial conversation became so engrossing that I’d swept my notes aside and let the conversation continue for the duration of the class. But now every student had a smartphone. Flip phones (according to them) were only for construction workers, security guards, and old people. Whenever I gave the class a break, my students’ faces immediately plunged to their laps where their phones had been sitting since class began. And those empty ten minutes, once the crucible of so much pleasurable talk, largely passed in silence.

When I’d started at the college, Galen was still in diapers, still drinking from a sippy cup, by all available metrics still a baby. A decade later, he was only a few years younger than my freshmen, many of whom had siblings younger than Hayden. My boys and my students both belonged to a generation that psychologist Jean Twenge has labeled the iGen: a group that has only ever known a constant state of connectivity, who has no memory of a time before the Internet or even the smartphone, a generation for whom “The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot [have] all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.” Having witnessed Galen’s absorption into video games a few years earlier, which he only ever played offline, I feared that a phone would draw him down a far deeper rabbit hole and sever the last threads that joined us together.

Nevertheless, a phone had become more necessary. We’d dumped our landline several years back, and now that Galen was twelve, he and Hayden both walked home from school several days a week. They’d become, in the parlance of guilty parenting, “latchkey kids.” With the boys coming home from two different schools to an empty house lacking a landline, we needed a way for them to reach us. “I’d feel better,” Katherine said one afternoon, “knowing I could get ahold of them. I could remind Galen to turn on the lights and unload the dishwasher.”

Galen sensed he was on the verge. “Oh, please, oh, please,” he said. “I’ll turn on every light in the house. I’ll unload the dishwasher every day.”

I said we could look. I didn’t make any promises, even if Katherine had more or less told me it was time to pull the trigger.

The salesman showed us a nice, entry-level device and told me I could set up the plan to exclude data. Galen would be able to surf the Net on Wi-Fi, but away from home or school or Starbucks, the phone would only be good for talk and text. Galen cradled the Samsung like Luke Skywalker holding wielding a lightsaber for the first time—that is, like a young man on the cusp of his heroic destiny. “I like this one,” he said.

I asked the salesman to give us a minute. I pulled Galen aside, into the corner by the Keurig machine. Cars zipped by on the other side of the window and a shaggy-haired teenager in Bozo-red shoes pedaled a bike along the sidewalk, a mere foot from the traffic, his eyes glued to the phone in his palm. I bounced my finger against the glass. “That can never happen,” I said, pointing at the texting cyclist.

“It won’t,” Galen swore.

“We need to agree on a few rules,” I said. I used my fingers to count them off. Number one, Mom and Dad got to see all his texts. Nothing would be erased without permission. Number two, no texting during dinner. Number three, the phone stayed in the kitchen at night, not in his bedroom.

“Okay,” Galen said.

Since I had some leverage, as well as two more fingers, I decided to add a few sweeteners. “Number four, you’ll walk the dog without giving me any grief, and number five, you’ll take care of me when I’m an old man. I want a room in your house, my own TV, and three hot meals per day.”

Galen pressed his left hand to his heart and stuck out his right for me to shake.

Within the hour, the phone had been purchased, configured, sheathed in plastic casing, and charged enough for Galen to send out his first text.

whats up max, he typed.

The text came from a number that had not existed before that afternoon, but somehow Max recognized the sender. Or perhaps Max was as eager to receive a text as Galen was to send one, and didn’t care who it was from. Hardly a minute later came the reply: the ceiling

hey I got a phone

u suck bunnies

u suck rabbits

This is Max’s Mom What kind of texting is this? Enough of this nonsense!

A few days later, we were in the kitchen when Galen’s phone began to ring. He’d hardly let go of the phone since he’d come home with it, and so he had it in his hand when it trilled into action. Galen stared down at his upturned palm as though it contained a ticking bomb. His face twitched between bewilderment and dismay. “What do I do?” he asked.

“Go ahead and answer it,” I said.

“Uh, hell-lo?” he said, the phone to his ear for the first time. His eyebrows were almost touching.

I could hear the voice on the other end. It was the cell phone company calling to ask if he was satisfied with his service.

“I guess,” Galen said, as if he’d never heard a dumber question. Upon hanging up, his thumbs shot to the keyboard. OMG SO AWK! he texted.

If these first exchanges were any indication of what Galen’s texts and calls would look like, I figured he wouldn’t likely get into too much trouble, at least right away. I did, however, remind him about using appropriate language and being polite on the phone. And I encouraged him to text in complete sentences, with commas and periods and proper capitalization. Many of my students were so accustomed to text speak that “LOL” and “BTW” often showed up in their papers.

“No one texts in complete sentences,” Katherine said. “Don’t be such a prig.”

“Isn’t it my job as an English professor to uphold the standards of the language?”

“Yes,” she said. “Your job. Work and parenting aren’t the same.” She looked sternly at me, anticipating my argument. “Get over yourself.”

Which was, the more I thought about it, the real trick to fatherhood, and to parenthood in general. You have to get over yourself. Parenthood might be characterized as an unending series of inter-linked worries, dominoes in an endless spiral. Some of those worries are real, but most are pretty banal and are more about protecting our ideas of our children, the visions of parenthood we conjured before we had actual children to parent. For all the solemn vows we make that our kids will never taste sugar or play violent games or wear clothes made in sweatshops, at some point we have to come to terms with the fact that they, like us, are citizens of a world that’s beyond our control, a world far too exciting and glittering and clamorous to keep at bay. If we do our jobs well, our kids will not only grow up, they’ll grow out—away from us, into lives defined by the secrets they keep from their parents. Where we stop, they begin. They have to get over us in order to grow.

From One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons From an Unexpected Fatherhood. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2018 by David McGlynn.

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