Dev and I were late to regular cell phone use. We got our first phones only about fourteen years ago. Two days ago, we traded in our old models (I had a fake Blackberry; he had a slide-out keyboard) for our first smartphones. With him making several trips a year across Kansas to see his aging folks, it was time for us to drop our pre-paid phones and get better coverage.
The discussion behind that debate had simmered for the last eight years or more. He's over-emotional, I'm over-analytical, between the two of us, we only get anything done if we have a moment of impulsiveness. But the larger debate was about JT.
He's 14 years old. We drive him to and from school. He never goes anywhere without our knowledge. Whether he's at school or the Y or youth group, there's always a phone available. Add to that, this last month he's lost his wallet. Twice. Why would he need a cell phone?
But our perspective started to change this fall. A senior had graciously offered to take him to cross country practice and then bring him home. But said senior was often grounded from his own phone, making contact with JT problematic. We'd often get calls saying, "I'm at the park downtown and I need a ride and everyone else has already left!"
So there are occasions when him having a phone would be advantageous. But which phone? I was set on a dumb phone. Having learned so much about trafficking, I didn't want him having unfettered internet and app access. And he'd already spent second quarter grounded from video games because of grades. But he (politely) explained as to how he would feel embarrassed not having a smartphone when all his friends did. I started to waffle.
Dev and I went into the store (about 11 am on a Wednesday) and waited half an hour before a clerk was free. He was about thirty, talked a mile a minute, and was one of the best salesmen I've ever experienced in my life. For one, when we mentioned Dev didn't know much about smartphones or tablets, he took him straight to the phone Dev had already chosen — one with easy mode. When I said I needed a good camera, he hooked me up.
And when we said we had a 14-year-old who needed to get his own phone, he took us directly to the dumb phones.
"I don't see why anyone under the age of 18 needs a smartphone," he said. "Just the other day, I sold a $650 iPhone to a man for his six-year-old daughter. Why would you give your child something so potentially dangerous? I mean, there is an app out there specifically designed to hide photos. Why would you have that unless you had photos you didn't want anyone to know about?"
My resolve strengthened, we looked over the dumbphones. The stinky thing about dumbphones is that most don't have a qwerty keyboard. We got JT the one model that did — a slide-out — and hoped he'd be content.
We needn't have worried. Dev picked him up from school. I hid the new phone under a blanket, then called it as soon as he walked in the door. He searched, confused, until he found it, then answered it.
"Sorry it's not a smartphone," I said.
Yeah. The rest of the evening was spent with him saying, "I wish it was like yours, but thank you!" And then he texted us 78 times to say thanks. And then he texted The Boss. Then he texted the GQKidz editor. Then he texted our social media director. And his aunt. And you get the picture.
Which is a long wind-up to the main part of my story. We laid out ground rules — at home, phone stays downstairs, not in his room; at school, phone stays in his locker — and then sent him to school with it. And I went to work.
And we texted each other throughout the day. Hi. Have a good day. We're going to start car-pooling with your friend. Mom, I love my phone. For some reason, it never occurred to me that getting my kid a phone would help us communicate more, not lead him into being a drug dealer or something. I'd heard all these horror stories about kids running off and not answering when their parents called. Or getting into psychologically abusive relationships via text. Or becoming addicted to the phone (for which there is treatment!). Or, well, Canon City. And I know that internet temptation is a huge problem for Christian boys (and girls).
It never occurred to me that if he had a cell phone I could tell him I loved him at lunchtime.
I didn't hear any regrets about not having a smartphone yesterday. This morning, he texted Dev to let him know he was too early for school, but it was okay (confusions of a snow delay). Tonight, he'll put his Bible study friend's number in his contacts.
That's our experience. If your kid already has a smartphone, I don't know that downgrading would be consistent with a calm family life. (But do get familiar with The Cyber Safety Lady.) Kids and cell phones is not a direct spiritual issue, and the choice will be different for each family. Consider your options. You don't have to get your kid a smartphone. (In fact, if more kids got dumbphones, maybe they'd start making cool dumbphones.) My hope is that JT will learn that the phone is a tool before it becomes a toy. It's already proved useful for our relationship.
Kersley Fitzgerald is a former Air Force officer, former Air Force wife, and current editor of Got Questions’ blog site, Blogos.org. She and her husband adopted JT from Thailand when he was 18 months old. He has spent the ensuing years teaching her more about God than any theology course could.