Dear Ms. Smartphone: My Dad reads this column aloud to my brother and me so I hope he will see this. I am ten years old and my birthday is next month. I am responsible and accountable. How do I tell my Dad I am ready to have my own smartphone? Emma, Novato
Dear Emma: This is one clever girl! It sounds like you are a preteen on your way to a smartphone. But, quickly do a financial check in. If you think it will strain your family’s finances, offer to help.
Since you read the column with Dad you might know that I am a proponent of the provisional phone. Newly minted drivers, and you will be one in five or six years, do not get on the road without adult supervision and training. Provisional drivers engage in classroom instruction, then they spend requisite hours practicing on the road with an adult, and finally they must pass both a written exam and road test.
Even after they earn their license, there are restrictions about driving after dark, transporting other kids in the car, and, of course, a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs.
Hello Provisional Phones!
In my years in transportation, I always thought we should have similar strictures for kids. While some countries ban phones in schools, parents have to come up with their own rules for home and after school. How do they know if their teen is ready for a smartphone? You can search more of my articles on provisional phones here, but here’s a glimpse.
Cars are dangerous if we go too fast and ignore the speed limits. On the Internet there is a similar issue: we need to slow down the velocity of our emotional responses and reactions. What you post is searchable. So a provisional phone might flash a message before we hit send: “Do you need to post this now? Would you want your parents or teachers to read or see this five years from now…” It sounds like common sense, but in the heat of the Internet it’s easy to forget.
In cars we go too fast, but on the Internet we go too deep. If you are not mindful, chatrooms, Tik-Tok and other media lead you down rabbit holes. They subtract time that you would otherwise spend reading a book, getting outdoors, or just being footloose. Even though we have digital connections, we need to nurture spaces so that we remain productive and creative offline.
Finally, your parents and teachers are concerned about the content you will be exposed to. There is, in practicality, no way to shield a clever teen with a curious mind. You will encounter a lot of “trash on the road” and bad actors who run shady sites. In addition, and this is vital, mental health professionals worry about online teens and peer pressure. Social media makes it easy-peasy to bully someone, post an inauthentic self, or make you envious of someone else’s (doctored) images.
The Internet would be a better experience if the other drivers, i.e. people on it had real identities, and we could know when we were being bought and sold. Classes on digital literacy are a first step and maybe your school or library offers instruction on coding and software too. If you spend time in the sausage factory, seeing how apps are written, then you can inspect them for things like SDKs . You will be wiser and less vulnerable.
Finally, and this is where it all begins- you and Dad should have a discussion about hardware. If it was a car, you might pine for something cool, like a Rav4 or a Jeep.. in phone talk that’s an Apple 11 or later and a Samsung S21 with 5G. It turns out that there are stripped down phones, called minimalist phones, akin to the old Fords and Chevys of the car world.
These minimalist phones have limited features – often phone, text, and GPS or they grey-scale the display (note the affiliate links if you click through). The Boring phone, is a minimalist phone that began as a New Zealand kickstarter campaign with kids specifically in mind. The Boring phone doesn’t appear to be in stock right now. I am not advocating for any particular hardware- for that matter you could get a flip phone and have scaled down features. It sounds like you are asking for more. I hope it works out, and you will write back about the choices after your birthday.