What was I thinking, buying my sixth grader a Smartphone?

When I was a child psychologist, people used to pay for my parenting advice. My kids now find that hilarious. I mess up, but that sad fact shouldn’t prevent me from helping others.

My sixth grader has a smartphone. There. I admitted it. And my fourth grader has already saved up enough money to buy hers at the same age her brother bought his: fifth grade. It’s only fair.

Now I feel like I have to explain how this happened. So skip the following three paragraphs if you’re a sad sack like me. Parents of those without smart phones, read on for just one of the million excuses middle school parents have for this mistake.

As James started fifth grade, I vowed to hold out. I idolized a friend who’d reluctantly bought her eighth grader a flip phone to take on his class trip. But a few months in, James, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, asked to borrow my phone to call a friend. Then another friend, and another friend. Social interaction! When the friends’ parents answered their cell phones, he politely asked to speak to the friends. Maturity! Next thing I knew, he asked to take a solo bike ride on the levee near our house. Independence!

Years before, we’d given up our landline. To encourage James’s welcome burst of social interaction, maturity, and independence, the natural next step was his own phone. Still, I hesitated. Screen addiction is a major concern among teens and adults with autism. I pictured James degenerating from a sporty tween into a flabby, pallid barnacle on our sofa. What’s more, the dangers of social media in middle school are well-documented, autistic or not. 

As I researched phones, though, the simplest alternative by far turned out to be an older generation iPhone. So in addition to a phone I’d be buying James a mini computer. On which he could Google whatever he liked. And watch You Tube.

My husband discovered the Screen Time app on the iPhone, which allows a parent to set some restrictions. Control! We went ahead with the phone. Within a month, James figured out how to get around Screen Time. Despite his real efforts to follow my limits, James’s Internet urge was so strong that I had to hide the phone when I didn’t want him to use it. Like my own parents hid the bourbon. James turned out to be a good seeker. He can’t find his pants, but he can find his phone.

I hadn’t been looking for something new to argue about. But the genie was out of the bottle, and the phone had become yet another source of conflict. 

I should have known better. My own parents did, having bought me a 15-year-old Datsun rather than a 747 for my first car. Kids learn best when they start low and go slow. We roll over, then crawl, then walk, then run, then bike, then drive, then fly. Where is the Datsun of cell phones?

The good news is, innovators are starting to see the appeal of a middle ground between two stringed-up cans and an iPhone. Last week, I tried out Relay, which is a sort of combination walkie talkie and one-button phone. More options already exist, and more are on the way. The choice isn’t binary, as it seemed to me last year. 

If I want to, I can demote James from an iPhone to a device that’s more phone, less computer. Better, I can start my younger child with a more limited device than James’s. And face her wrath. Even better, I can encourage other parents to learn from my rookie mistakes and seek out their own Datsun phones in the first place. Cool kids be damned. 

By giving us the iPhone, technology solved a lot of little problems: getting lost, losing touch, missing out. Maybe technology can save our kids from the huge problems of screen addiction and the mental health sequelae of early smart phone use.

Relay is half-price for Amazon Prime Day, July 12-19! Click here for details.