The Dangers of Smartphone Ownership
I remember the day our family discovered Matthew, our oldest son’s, “secret identity.” It’s what every parent fears. You’ve seen the specials advertised on daytime TV. “My child/significant other/hamster has a secret online life.” My husband and I were terrified, stunned. Where did we go wrong? We were good parents, right? How could this happen to us?
It all started last October. Our oldest son asked for a smartphone for Christmas. His argument- “I already have a basic cell phone and an iPod. A smartphone is just combining the two together in one device I likely won’t lose.”
My husband and I sat down to talk about what exactly he might need or want a smartphone for, and what our major concerns were with him having one.
The first concern: He’s a teenager! He can’t even drive yet! What on earth does he need a smartphone for? What about all those apps that they warn you about on the news, like cyber bullies, or those hidden apps that allow for the sending of generally inappropriate images? What kind of text messages would he send with access to the entire internet at his fingers? What was he doing on Snapchat or Periscope? Doesn’t he have better things to do than stream YouTube videos? Is he downloading things he shouldn’t be? What about listening to music we didn’t approve of? Is he going to waste his entire high school career glued to a small electronic device and not interacting with his peers? Does he really need access to video games EVERYWHERE he goes?!
Yes, he had an iPod, but we checked and monitored the app usage and downloads. He only had Wi-Fi access to get online, and that access was limited. Would we be able to disable a data plan on a smartphone? Could we limit him to avoid astronomical cell phone data charges, and also encourage him to be responsible with the data? After about 20 minutes of feeling really old, because “back in my day, I didn’t even get a basic cellphone until college and it barely had T9,” was really our main standing point, we realized something. Having a smartphone or not having a smartphone wasn’t the issue. Our issue was trust.
Did we trust our 15 year old son?
Well, that’s a loaded question. We wanted to trust him. We didn’t have any reason not to trust him. All we had were “what if” scenarios. What if he was caught up in cyberbullying? What if he wasted his life away, glued to his phone with no social interaction? What if he ended up on the black market of the internet because now he could access data from anywhere? What if…
It was simple panic. He could already access everything over the internet through Wi-Fi, and we could turn off the data so he couldn’t charge egregious amounts of data fees. We were just scared that our son was growing up.
And so, after much hemming and hawing, the cellphone was purchased. It had everything! Including a ridiculous, all-encompassing warranty and waterproof/shatterproof case that made it virtually indestructible! At least, we hoped.
We sat down and set up rules on usage, reminded him of appropriate internet use, restricted him to only using WIFI, and the most important rule:
No cellphones at the dinner table.
This has always been our rule with electronics, but we wanted to ensure that family time was something that still happened on the rare occasion that we weren’t carting the kids off to practice or didn’t have plans that kept us separate for meals. And the rule worked! It was glorious! Fifteen to thirty minutes of actual talking. No texting, no games, no Googling things. Just pure discussion about everyone’s day and sometimes waxing poetic on our grievances.
Well, at least, for the first month or two.
It started like any other meal. The kids were setting the table, but Matthew sat on the steps leading upstairs, absolutely enthralled in his phone, tapping away as if the fate of the free world depended on him.
“Matthew, will you please put your phone away and help set the table?” my husband asked in a friendly, yet firm tone.
Matthew grunted. I think it was an affirmative noise.
Minutes passed. I started putting dinner out on the table.
“Matthew! Put the phone down, it's dinner time and you know the rule,” My husband’s voice was growing louder and more annoyed with every word.
“Just a second. This is really important,” came the response. Matthew barely even glanced up from his phone.
“What could possibly be that important?” I asked. “Hand me the phone now.”
Matthew looked up. Fear in his eyes. There was no browser wiping that could be done inconspicuously. He was caught. Running wasn’t an option. He had to confess. Soon, we would all know his secret.
Our other children looked on. A mixture of fear and pure salivation on their faces. The look you get when you’re witnessing something you shouldn’t. You know the look. Eyes wide. Eyebrows raised. Mouth open, practically salivating with the thought of what is to come. It’s like awaiting the bringing out of the turkey on Thanksgiving. No one can look away. You want first dibs. Fingers were practically itching to be the first to text their friends about “Ohmygod you will never believe what my brother did!”
Matthew slowly stood up. Phone still in his hand. A stunned look of disbelief on his face.
“Well, what is so important?” My husband demanded.
There was a pause. A stretch of silence that went on for what seemed like hours. No one moved a muscle. You could actually hear the tension moving around our oldest son.
“I was having a debate with someone on this forum about non-interventionist policy and why it would be better for the United States current foreign policy. See, I’m a part of this political discussion site, and I wanted to make sure I finished my argument before dinner.”
The silence returned. Our jaws dropped. The previous greed shown by everyone in their excitement to see Matthew really get in trouble was lost.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“See, I can’t take debate because of my schedule, but I think I want to be a politician when I get older. I’ve been having these discussions on this forum and people don’t believe I’m not even 16 yet. I’m really popular and the online communities think my ideas are great. This guy and I have been debating for a few days now and I finally decided to shut him down.”
And like that, our world was turned upside down. The fear of what is on the internet and what our son could possibly need a cellphone for was real. But it was worse than we ever imagined. Matthew had a secret life. A secret life that was beyond our wildest imaginings.
Our son wanted to be a politician when he grew up.
Had we not bought him a smartphone, who knows? Maybe he’d have chosen a different path. All we knew was we only had ourselves to blame. In buying him a smartphone, we sealed his fate. Our son now had the ability to battle anyone on the internet. Not in a game, but in a duel of fierce linguistics and carefully worded sentences. His weapon: his finely tuned mind and sharpened wit, his fingers forging the path through the battlefield of misunderstandings and poorly researched ideas.
In that brief moment, I thought back to his argument about why he should get a smartphone and made a terrifying realization.
Not only was my oldest son going into politics. He was going to be great.