Family Setup Good Idea?

@dearsmartphone
(this is not a picture of the actual watch)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I’d like to give my eight year old more independence since he stays indoors all day for home-schooling. But, I also think he is too young to get his own phone. If he goes on his bike or walks to the nearby store I want to know he gets there safely and does not get into trouble. There are not many kids his age in our neighborhood  to hang out with so I worry when he is out and about.  Kelly, Tiburon

Dear Kelly: It’s funny how we now conflate independence with phones.  There are probably less dangers out there than you imagine, but it comes back to your son and his level of maturity.  Back in 2011, a Mom/journalist in NYC started a movement called “free range kids.” The idea is that kids are allowed to play outside or go alone on short trips alone so they learn to be creative and self-sufficient and solve problems if they arise. The founders stress that this is not the same  as “Permissive Parenting.”

Optimized for Kids and…

Depending how you feel about phones and the cost of adding a new phone line, there is a tech solution. Apple just introduced a gadget  called “Family Setup.” It’s is a phone- watch Apple says that is optimized for younger children and seniors!  If you want to know your son’s whereabouts, or grandma’s, that will display on your iphone map. You can  also call or text them from your phone. That sounds like it would do the job.

 Apple’s Family Setup is not the first device to provide a geofence and parental controls (see link for Android) but it will give you more features. The promo material says you can send cash via Apple Pay, so imagine sending your son to the store to pick up a few things on your shopping list! Maybe, have him bring back a newspaper or magazine- something to read together! Or use the feature to set a weekly allowance, and track how it is allocated.

Exercising Choices!

Since children are spending so much time indoors these days, you might test out the feature called the “activity center” (and let me know if it works). It’s like a Fitbit that tracks exercise routines. It then digitally lauds the effort with emoji coaching and milestones.  Since your son is at home and missing recess he might enjoy this.  On the other hand, will he exercise for the intrinsic satisfaction of keeping fit or as a token to share with friends? If the latter, it may unwittingly progress into oversharing on social media at a very young age.

There are pros and cons to Family Setup.  Until we all got smartphones, reaching the teen years meant becoming increasingly self reliant and self-contained, the concept of the ‘free range-kids.’  I honestly don’t know if our connected devices will help parents or  undermine the core values they need to teach. And, will kids who get these watches soon pine for full phones instead?  Finally, our relationships are so fragile these days, so what will happen  if the “family” splits- is it just Mom or just Dad or Grandpa that becomes the watch-keeper? 

Kids Use Ipad in Car?

Long car trip, many miles to go
with 1 dog and 2 kids..should we bring out the Ipads?

Are we there yet? Displayed in text as a green road sign. There are puffy white clouds in the background.
It’s a sign of a long trip. Are we there yet?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We have a long cross-country trip ahead of us. We have two kids and one dog.  Our dog can’t get on the airplane, so we decided to take him with us. I think it is OK to let the children have their own Ipad in the car to watch a kid’s show or play games. My wife says I am taking the easy way out and we should not allow them to have the Ipads. What would you do?  The children, by the way, are ages eight and four.  Max, Boston.

Dear Max: You asked me what I would do- seriously, I would fly, but then there’s the dog, and keeping the family Covid safe. It’s good that you and your spouse are having this discussion about digital media before you set out. 

It is hard to peer out of the back-seat window for days on end. But, it’s also hard to drive with noisy, restless kids. Perhaps download a number of family-oriented books-on-tapes before you go. That way, as you drive, you can share the content together. If you give them Ipads, it is one-on-one media. You lose the ability to talk together and bring an adult view to the kid content. 

Let’s Get Bored!

But, importantly, do not underestimate the power of kids getting bored. Each person has to solve it individually and learn that feeling bored is normal. It can also become the gateway to creative thinking and focus. There is so much media to entertain young children today (and keep them quiet) that we overlook the value of downtime. A noted clinical psychiatrist says that boredom, not mental health, is the real issue bubbling up from the pandemic. So, in these times, we need to teach children that it’s OK to be bored. The psychiatrist notes that teens seems to need more novelty and sensation seeking, and their understimulated state opens the door to recreational drugs. So, a few days in the car without the Ipad may set younger kids on a better path. 

IRL Geography

Finally, there’s real educational value in experiencing the vast expanse of this country first-hand. It’s the IRL geography class. You’ll find lots of sites online for making it useful, like this one.  I would personally stop at each state’s Welcome Center so that Fido gets to stretch his legs, and the kids get a souvenir, and pick out free brochures and maps to then study in the car. Maybe your eight year old will want to keep a diary of the trip- either digitally or on paper. The point is to experience it first, record it later, and share it together. Have a good time and drive safe. 

Is Move To Suburb Good for Kids?

An urban Grandma asks when kids move out do they use the Internet less?

This is a book cover from 1997 titled "Better Place to Live" by Philip Langdon. How should suburbia be reimagined?
Suburbia is Good? Philip Langdon, 1997

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is it good for kids to move to the suburbs? My son and his family plan to move out of the city to a home about 20 miles away. He said his three children are spending too much time on the Internet and also when they move they will each have their own bedroom. I think where they live today is just fine even though they share rooms.  Do you think this move will really help the children when it comes to using the Internet less? As I see it, there are so many fun things to do here in my neighborhood.  Judy, Brookline

Dear Judy: Your son is not alone- there is a narrative that families are doing an exodus from big metro centers these days. Working from home in tight quarters is a chief reason to move out with the closure of favorite restaurants and hangouts. But to answer the question you pose, what are the differences of  urban vs. suburban? The picture at the top is from a 1997 book that argued that the suburbs were stressful, unhealthy places to live. Now the pendulum swings back.

This chart, which comes from an extensive U.S.  time-use study in 2019, shows little difference in what people do in suburbs vs. cities, even with an outdoor activity like playing sports. You asked about media, and that’s not exactly captured, although the categories of watching sports and leisure/relaxing are closely related.

Behind Closed Doors:

In a bigger home with separate bedroom parents will have less ability to see and watch what their kids are doing on the Internet, particularly if the kids used to browse from a shared computer or tablet. Today, bedrooms often do double duty as arcade and game rooms.  But, it’s a balance for families- if Mom or Dad telework, they need to be able to shut the door too.

In the suburbs your son and his family will be spending more time driving, either to see you in Brookline, or for work and school. Kids playing with phones in cars, even as a passenger, is not a good habit. The car is an essential place for conversation, for looking out the window, and managing in-between time. I sometimes wonder if parents who talk a lot on their own phones as they drive, and/or let little kids use their phones in the car imbue a habit that lasts for a lifetime…. when these kids grow up, they become drivers on phones, and drive unsafe.

Inside Closed Cars:

And, speaking of driving, when people move to suburbs with children, kids are generally less independent, unless there are safe sidewalks and bicycles to travel on. Otherwise, these children need to rely on their parents or caregivers to drive them almost everywhere. When children can’t socialize in person or go places,  they might spend more time on their computers or phones, either playing video games or going on social media.

Ultimately, it will be up to your son and his family to set new rules, and to manage how much time the children spend on the Internet. I hope that the move works out well for the family and you will be there helping them manage the changes.