by Victoria Bailey
I have three children, with ten years between my eldest and my youngest (technically there’s nine years and six months but, close enough). A few weeks ago the youngest got their first phone. Thus, there’s also been about ten years between my eldest getting their own cellphone (so much time has passed that you now wouldn’t even specify that it was a cell phone) and my youngest receiving theirs. (Again it was technically around nine and something years but let’s go with it – a decade more or less). Between them of course is my middle one who got their own phone along the way.
How I felt and behaved and mothered when my first child gained access to a phone and, thus, to technology and unsupervised information differs in many ways from how I react to and enact rules about the same thing with my youngest—who probably has access to more info and apps and games. This cannot be simply explained away by, “I’m three kids in and I’m worn out” nor by a “not my first rodeo” ease. I reflected on this issue over the last few weeks and settled on the following ten-point explanation. Here goes:
- When used by children, phones and devices distinctly become domestic, and thus gendered, and somehow my responsibility. This has not changed; I just care much, much less. I really don’t care much either, on a micro level, about the ‘big brother’ aspects of mass information gathered via media operatives, but over the years I have started to care very much about a distinct sense of a big brother gender-linked expectation that I police my children’s technology use.
- There were discussions about risks, expectations, and the rules of phone use with each kid, but first time round it seemed arbitrary and confusing and created anxiety for me, and no doubt them too. Looking back, it now seems like overkill.
- As mentioned, these gadgets seem to fall under a domesticated ministry and thus their use became linked with food in a myriad of ways beyond meal times. (It’s no coincidence we use the word ‘binging’). However, as an example, surely technological use at meal times is just another aspect of dinner etiquette? So you expect no texting while at the table? Generally speaking I expect elbows off the table, no speaking with food in mouths and so on; phone use is just an extension of this. Over the last decade, as my family literally and figuratively grew, I can declare unashamedly that sometimes we go out to eat with passable manners, sometimes we (usually not me) make dinner at home, sometimes we order in and eat with our plates on our knees while watching a movie, and sometimes one or more of us is literally walking and texting and eating. Like most families, we do as needs must, and how and what we eat varies from day to day. Currently my children are 20, 16, and 10 (are you judging the ages they got phones?); our routine is we have very little routine which means there are very few rules to enforce. Let those who have not texted or chatted or scrolled or browsed or watched or shopped while eating cast the first phone.
- As a teenager, I lived in the UK. The typical teen-girls on US-based shows I watched had pink plastic telephones on long extension cords in their bedrooms and they didn’t pay for their nonchalant calls by the minute. This was a pie-in-the-sky dream of privilege for me and my friends. Calls were expensive for us. We had to make pre-arrangements, or phone and let it ring three times before hanging up to signal we were ready to hang out, or wait until after six to make a very quick call because it was cheaper. It was not uncommon to see money boxes next to peoples’ home phones that you were expected to contribute to should you make a call while visiting. But … I did stay up longer than my parents thought I did, listening to music on my stereo headphones or tuning into the late night radio call-in show when that became a craze. I should have been sleeping, the content of the calls was likely beyond inappropriate for my age, and all of it was of no educational value whatsoever, and it was great. Point being, I have come to realize that if I could have had a phone on which to connect with friends (for free! Well, via WIFI my parents paid for), read, play games, listen to music and so on and so on, I most certainly would have and I don’t think it would have been wrong to do so. I bet teen Shakespeare would have too.
- I now know how to fit a screen protector and I know the cheapest local place to get screen repairs.
- The kids not only police their own phone use, they learnt from each other (“Mum, I’m not going to do what they did”), and even set boundaries for each other’s use in a way that is far better than me trying to achieve the same result. For example, the week my youngest got their phone, they enjoyed reaching out to far-flung family members and friends via text and social media tools (think akin to letting them go nuts with Halloween candy before culling the loot). We talked about what frequency of contact was appropriate but it was mostly met with eye rolls, sighs, and “It’s fine Mum.” My eldest came home from a trip away, saw the youngest one and before saying, “Hello,” said, “Why did you text and call me so many times? You can’t do that to people, stop it.” Not that I endorse using shame as a learning tool but still – it was an organic and natural response. And, it worked.
- I can talk on my phone for an hour, easy. I can face time for even longer and can participate in synchronous, asynchronous and somewhere in between (semi-synchronous?) messaging conversations with ease. My kids? Granted they might delete their juicy convos and texts but honestly, as far as I have seen, 90% of their interactions consist of this: — Hey — Hey
- When my eldest got their phone they were just becoming common place – now, for my youngest, they have never notexisted, they are ubiquitous and going nowhere. Why fight a losing battle? There is also a unique quality to a mother’s restrictions in that the more they/we/I purposefully limit or disapprove of particular items or activities, a desire for said thing often grows in equal or even grander measure. I now embrace the “meh.”
- Phones, and other technological tools, have become no nearer to being self-cleaning or hygienic as far as I can tell.
- I drafted this blog content while on a plane coming back from a week’s vacation with my kids (on a fully masked/pre-screened flight). There were two families of four (mom, dad, and two kids), who seemed to be traveling with each other, sitting on the two rows in front of me. As we queued to clear security I noticed one of the dads was completely consumed with laptop activity, while the mother ensured their children behaved as needed. When we boarded, the mothers of both families sat on one side of the plane, a preschool or elementary-aged child either side of them, while the fathers took a seat across the aisle. The men immediately pulled out devices (the one near to me pulled out an e-book reader) and began using them, and proceeded to do so for the entire flight. Granted the journey was only a little over an hour, but still, the mothers spent that time seeing to the kids’ needs, including their use of phones and tablets, while both dads sat using their devices undisturbed. This behaviour, modelled for all to observe, bothers me far more than the content of any electronic game or movie any of our kids were playing during that flight.
Phones, and use of gadgets that enable internet and information use, are often equated with crossing the road: that is, children have to learn to do it safely by themselves. While this analogy is useful I feel it’s too simplistic. Healthy, mindful, and respectful use and sharing and creation of information is far more complex and nuanced than “stop and look both ways before crossing.” I believe it’s more like teaching children to talk. Crossing the road is always crossing the road and varies little as we mature. Like language, technology, and what it provides access to, is universal, pervasive, and ever increasing and evolving. Similar to teaching our children to talk, or communicate verbally, we teach the basics, we limit exposure to the bad stuff (well, I try), but … sigh … like so much else, I have found over the last decade that I have taught far more via my own use and application of phones and technology than I could ever enforce. Let me be clear, I am in no way dismissing technology-linked addiction or the impact of online trolling or abuse, but addictive and abusive behaviours are the crux of the issue, not the tools in and of themselves.
During the decade of my children’s cellphone use, the sky has not fallen. Perhaps the penny hasn’t dropped yet either. But if it did, I’d pick it up, put it in the money box by the phone, and hopefully buy more new media. Keep Calm and Log on I say.
Victoria Bailey is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing focused upon motherlines and reclaiming and representing herstory. Her writing has been included in a wide variety of publications.