Delaying My Child’s Digital Footprint

turned on gold iphone 6
Photo by Sara Kurfess on Unsplash

For the past couple of years, our son has mentioned wanting a cell phone. Many of his classmates (in grades 5–6) have a smartphone, so naturally, his interest continues to grow steadily. I have been staunchly against him having a cell phone this early (he’s 11), and though he doesn’t ask often, I am always inclined to provide an explanation for my reluctance to oblige the request.

A 2018 Pew Study summarized that 95% of teens surveyed reported owning or having “access to” a smartphone. That is an astonishing number of children with the ability to leave undeletable histories on the world wide web at such an impressionable age. Quite frankly, I don’t want my children to have a digital footprint until it’s absolutely necessary. That’s my primary reason for saying, “Later, baby,” every time my son asks for a phone. He’s still very young, and given the multitude of challenges children his age find themselves facing, I’d rather save the cell phone and accompanying social media usage for later in his life.

I would be lying if I denied that a good amount of my hesitation is rooted in fear and worry. Of course, online hazing and cyberbullying are at the forefront of my mind every time we discuss purchasing a phone. There are far too many stories of children, preteens, and teenagers suffering from cyberbullying and isolation for me to feel comfortable with him being on social media on his phone. Despite 24% of teens describing social media’s effect as negative (about 76% of teens described the effect as neutral or positive), I can’t seem to shake my apprehension.

It’s not like he has no access at all, though. We allow him to play video games online, which has also presented troublesome experiences when online players are mean or offensive. In those instances, we discuss people’s lack of empathy and consideration of others. Even still, just keeping track of the messages, search history, and other key information can be a task.

white concrete building with if not now, when? text
Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

For a long time, I struggled with the idea of reading emails and app messages or monitoring website visitation because I felt like it was an invasion of privacy, and it was difficult to reconcile privacy with being an active parent who seeks to protect my child. However, not being aware of his online exposure and experiences at my son’s age seems like negligence to me, and I just can’t get comfortable with it. While he is an extremely bright child and has the wherewithal to avoid dangerous situations, he’s still a little boy. The opportunity for less-than-ethical people who might interact with him anonymously online exists simply because of childhood naivete.

Relatedly, I knew that my almost daily “chats from Mom” about online safety and diligence would, in some ways, be ignored because children seem to believe their parents don’t really know much. As an added way for us to teach our son about the responsibilities associated with maintaining a digital footprint, he’s taking a cybersecurity course this school year. These types of classes definitely help students understand the importance of being cautious online, so when it’s time for us to get him a cell phone, I will feel much more confident about it.

I’m not against social media, and I’m not against preteens having cell phones. I’ve just been unsure of how to ensure that my son’s future isn’t negatively impacted by impulsive decisions online—whether his or other people’s. I need to protect his childhood as much as I can. Far too many young children like my son never get the freedom or protection to just be kids. I don’t want that for him, nor do I want something foolish to resurface a decade later and ruin him.

I’ve explained this to him, and I’m sure that while he says he totally understands, there is a part of him that thinks I’m dramatic. To be honest, I think myself quite dramatic on this topic, but I haven’t been able to find comfort in putting a smartphone in my 11-year-old’s hands no matter how mature everyone knows he is. The responsibility is greater than him right now, so I’m going to delay that access for as long as I can.

Chawanna is a native San Antonian enjoying being back home after living in other parts of the U.S., Brazil, and Switzerland. When she's not laughing and joking with her two awesome children and husband, Chawanna develops curriculum for a New England educational nonprofit and serves as Executive Director of Single Seed Enrichment School, Inc., a small local educational nonprofit she founded in 2016. Chawanna's passions span many areas, but K-12 education definitely rules all others. Known as Dr. Chae to her students, families, and colleagues, Chawanna splits her time between her supportive family, volunteering as a K-12 tutor, serving on the Board of Directors as the Curriculum Chair for New Leaders Council-San Antonio, and leading the new Single Seed Micro-school.