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.
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?