Teen Ready for Smartphone?

 Is  Teen ready for Smartphone? A sketch with a violet colored background of a cell phone case and a provisional driver's license. Used  to promote idea of a provisional phone for teens.
Teen: Ready for Smartphone? Hello provisional phone!

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.

Deep Speeds

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.

Minimalist Phones

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.

Books to Read Aloud for Baby..

Members of a family lying in bed, each one with an electronic device.
Print or Kindle? Time to read aloud!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My wife and I are planning an in-home baby shower (finally!) and we’ve asked guests to gift children’s books to read aloud. Most people like that. But one or two friends say that we are being priggish and old-fashioned. They offered to pool their gift and get us a Kindle and Kindle gift cards instead! I want to be ready to talk about this when they come for the party next month. T.C, San Mateo

Dear T.C., First of all, congratulations and happy celebrations. I totally applaud your gift-giving stance, and would ask your Kindle inclined friends to get you a subscription to a print newspaper or magazine, perhaps a year or two from now. 

First, the trend: if you have visited a bookstore lately or looked at the best sellers’ lists, children’s books are crowding out adult reading. It’s not just for baby showers. Booksellers expect that babies will start out with tactile print pages but young people and adults will shift to downloads. The vital question is ‘at what age does that shift occur’?

That’s important because routines set early in life become habit forming. In the U.S. the Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended  no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting. This summary of the AAP says kids ages 2 to 5 should get an hour or less of screen time per day.   Yet, a recent UK study found that 51% of the 6 to 11 month old infants had daily interaction with the touchscreen, and 75% of toddlers between 6 months and 3 years of age use a touchscreen on a daily basis.

Hidden Screen Time

How do children get so much exposure to digital devices? On a personal level, you might institute a strict rule to read in print. However, well-meaning grandparents, care minders, and daycare are naive to the concern and will use screen time more.  And, sadly, parents aren’t off the hook. Very young children watch their parents and later on, mimic their behaviors. From the outset they observe grownups on their phones- while breastfeeding, in the car, and on the playground.

Still, I’m less worried about the early months as you will have lots of great reading on hand. And, thinking of showers, do we really need all those rubbery books that float in the water for bath time?  Babies books are adorable: they are short, often tactile (think ‘Pat the Bunny‘),  use rhyming sounds  (‘Chicka Chika Boom Boom’), and grand images (‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’). There is probably nothing better than reading aloud with a warm puppy, a cuddly infant, and a great book (perhaps in that order too!).

Time for Tablets?

What I worry about, per the proposed Kindle gift, is a few months beyond- say ages 18 months to two years. Parents get psyched up that tablets will boost their child’s academic readiness, and kids who don’t participate get left behind.  In communications research, there was a similar trend in the 1970’s.  TV distributed programs like  Sesame Street, and instructional software like LeapFrog, were devised to give kids a head start. The discussion is still open as to whether this entertainment approach debases classroom learning and fosters shorter attention spans. Mainstream research says that the programming did have positive effects, especially for disadvantaged kids. They could repeat letters or numbers when they began school, things that are measured in testing.  

The Read-Aloud Guru

While there is a lot of wisdom coming from pediatricians and educators, I’d like to quote a civilian who wrote an earlier book in 1982 and became a spokesperson on the importance of reading aloud to children, particularly as they get older- even to teen years. 

In his swan piece, Jim Telease reflects that both libraries and newspapers are “failing” to raise a generation of readers. Children who come from homes containing the most print- newspapers, books, and magazines- have the highest reading scores. As more American homes go without a daily newspaper, fewer children see a parent reading anything, and the less there is to model on. 


This is the key point (see picture), for while you may be engaged in deep content on your electronic device, chances are your child won’t see it this way. A child mimicking your behavior can’t determine whether you are reading Jonathan Swift, or browsing car ads, emails, and movies. When kids get their own screen time, it’s natural for them to gravitate towards online activities that demand less effort, like videogames and Club Penguin.

So, how do you as a parent encourage child parent interaction, and stave off this digital  devaluation? Having print materials- daily newspapers and magazines around is important. They present an impromptu forum for parents to share reactions out loud, talk them over as a family, and debate ideas. Seeing this may help help kids develop verbal literacy, even if they are little. Aim for newspapers that have a weekly pullout section for younger kids, and find some content in the daily paper (e.g. Dear Smartphone, shameless self promotion!) that you can talk over together.

Meanwhile,  because the print news copies  are physically present, the content can be consumed slowly and enhance memory and information retention. These are skills that help kids academically.  That said, kids reared on digital devices might gain different competencies, like fine-grain visual literacy and keyboarding. 


Anyway, I’d like to end on a lighter note.  Since you are getting so many baby books for the shower, you are sure to get duplicate ones too!  Consider sending them to an out-of-town  grandparent or family member that plans to spend time with your baby. Then they can read together electronically, and turn the pages at the same time!

Screen Time or School Time?

Returning to the classroom. How to wean kids from screens to school?

A cartoon of four children holding phones to text each other.  Above their head is a giant Covid like mask with an envelope!
Screentime or Schooltime? dreamstime.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Conflict here between school time and screen time! Finally my twins are back in middle school (yay) but they used their tablets and phones so much during the lock down that they are having a hard time giving them up. They play online games when they get up, pull phones out when they board the school bus, and then whip them out for social media when they get home. I can’t really blame them, because tablets and phones were their lifeline this past year. Lindsay, Santa Monica

Dear Lindsay: First, the big picture. You mentioned that the twins are in middle school, so they were probably born around 2008 or later. They are the first generation that will grow up with smartphones from cradle to grave. We, as adults, don’t quite know what to make of that. Imagine what it was like 100 years ago when our great-grandparents experienced an entirely new mobility, as travel transitioned from horse and buggy to cars.

I mention this so you cut them some slack. Digital tech is going to grow up alongside them and they will use it in ways that we, as elders, cannot imagine today. But, to you immediate question, how do you wean kids from screen time to school time?

It’s a dialogue

Begin with a screen time conversation with their classroom teachers, other parents, and even the middle-school principal. This was the same advice I gave this past summer when kids were schooling in pods. It’s vital that kids on the playground are talking with each other, not over their phones and text.

Some schools have successfully banned phone use during recess and lunch. During the school day, you must exercise equal restraint, and never text or phone, even if they forgot their lunch money or your afternoon pickup changes.

Of Parenting Mind

In last week’s column I mentioned two parenting tips: Try out Tiffany Shlain’s program for a family-oriented Tech Shabbat, and second, make the screen time feature on the iPhone work for you. As a parent, you need to set boundaries- so add phone time to the learning list. You can customize the app so that the twins are restricted say on Snapchat, but not on other sites.

Finally, and this is the key take away: hopefully you, or a friend, can be there for your kids after school, or have them join an outdoor activity group. As Covid winds down, we all need to make a 180 degree U-Turn, and be committed to being out- of- doors instead of inside. Here in late Spring, it’s a good time to start taking after-school bike rides, hikes, or nature walks. If you live in the city, go to the park.

Of Out of Doors

And, with summer coming and school letting out just as it got started, you don’t want them back at home, sitting on their phones and tablets. Explore a day- camp that prioritizes out-of-door activities, and specifically bans phones or collects them in Yondr bags. If you can afford it or can get a scholarship, consider a sleep-over camp with an explicit phone-off policy.

These Covid-weary kids need to be immersed in outdoor activities and learn new skills like knots, ropes, and basic survival skills. More than ever, this age group needs to discover that basic survival rests beyond their digital devices. Although they are the face of a digital future, they need to see how earlier people got by.

So, hopefully, in the wild they will learn how ancient people navigated by the stars, not by their phones. They will see memory embedded in the the rings of trees. And the phone’s vivid time-lapse photography might still pale after witnessing daybreak and a fresh morning sunrise.