Parents debate when is right for children to have smartphones

By: Kristyne E. Demske, Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published January 22, 2020

 Twelve-year-old Jewel Zschernig, of Clinton Township, uses the phone she received for her birthday after dance class.

Twelve-year-old Jewel Zschernig, of Clinton Township, uses the phone she received for her birthday after dance class.

Photo provided by Julie Zschernig

METRO DETROIT — When to give a child a smartphone depends on a lot of factors, say metro Detroit parents.

Some decided their child needed a phone when they began walking home from school by themselves, others when older siblings move to a different school. Other parents said a divorce prompted them to give a younger child a phone so they could remain in contact when the child was staying with the other parent.

Nick Liston, of Swartz Creek, got his daughter a smartphone at the age of 10.

He and his former wife had just gotten divorced, and they wanted to be able to stay in touch with their daughter, who was sharing her time between two homes and in a plethora of after-school activities.

“It just got to the point where it was easier to give her a phone out of pure convenience,” Liston said.

The two initially limited what their daughter could do on her phone, but eventually allowed the use of social media — including an Instagram account.

“From there, it was really just little insignificant bumps in the road, but enough to open our eyes that maybe we needed to keep a little bit closer of an eye on what she was doing with the phone,” Liston said. “She was not just using it to call us when she needed a ride — she was using it to socialize.”

For three to four months, the parents looked at Instagram with their daughter when she wanted to use it, pointing out posts they saw online that could potentially be troublesome.

“This stuff is out there. There is no hiding it from your kids,” Liston said. “It’s just a matter of dealing with it, talking to them and being honest with them in describing the pitfalls that you can get into when you throw yourself into this mix of all these people on the internet sharing their lives.”

Because she was still young, Liston said his daughter really took what he said to heart.

“I think when kids are younger, they are more teachable and it’s easier to show them the things that they shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “If I got her a phone right now, I don’t know what I would do, because she’d never let me look at it. She’s 16 now and doing her own thing.”

As a parent, Liston said it’s hard to let go of wanting to control your child’s every move.

“It’s the same thing with phones. A lot of people don’t want to get their kids a phone, thinking they’re saving them from something, but the world doesn’t really work like that. The world keeps spinning no matter how much you try to hide things from your kid. This stuff is out there, and I feel like it’s better to be open and have conversations with your children to show them where they can trip up if they do this stuff.”

Jeni Hester, of Rochester, also gave her eldest daughter a smartphone at the age of 10.

“She was spending, like, 20 hours a week at dance alone, so we were concerned that she needed to be able to contact us,” she said.

Following suit, Hester’s youngest daughter was also 10 when she received a phone.

“That three years made a massive difference to how many kids we knew had a phone. They jumped into using it so much faster. It almost felt like a whole different generation,” Hester said. “There was a lot of pressure to be on social media and be constantly in contact. Even now, I find that she is much more connected to her friends on her phone than my older daughter.”

In Hester’s experience, most children seem to get phones in middle school.

“Now the schools are sort of assuming that all the kids have them,” she said. “It’s amazing how many of their classes involve something you need to be able to do on your smartphone.”

Hester encouraged parents to keep a close eye, especially in the early days, on how their kids are using their devices.

“If they are going to sign up for any kind of social media, start small and keep an eye on it,” she said.

In the Hester household, when a phone is gifted, parents have access to all their kids’ passwords.

“They know that I can check it at any time,” Hester said. “It’s just nice to know, and we have had a couple of times where that came in really useful.”

Hester also makes sure that her girls are enjoying a portion of the day without a device.

“They understand that there has to be family time and homework time, and it’s not to be in their hands all the time — although it gets harder and harder the older they get.”

Many parents say they aren’t in a rush to connect their child to the world.

“They don’t need to be on all that social media. They’re young. They need to be outside playing with their friends,” said Julie Zschernig, of Clinton Township.

Zschernig, who has five children ranging from 12 to 22 years old, said that she set the age of phone ownership at 12 in her household.

“At age 12, they start to want to branch out with their friends,” she said. “It’s a lot more just so that I can touch base (with them). We all survived without for so long, but now there’s no payphones or landlines.”

When her older children were younger, they could just walk around the block to see their friends. But after a move to a new city when they were in junior high, she said, they needed a different way to connect with their friends who were farther away.

Zschernig limits what kind of social media and apps are allowed on their phones.

Her youngest is allowed to have Facebook and Instagram, but no Snapchat until she’s 14 because of its initial setting to delete an image as soon as it’s viewed.

“I can’t really go back and see what’s sent,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I chose Instagram over ... Snapchat.”

Zschernig said she also takes away her children’s phones around 8 or 9 p.m. each night so they’re not on them all night long.

“The pediatrician also recommended so little screen time, but it’s just unavoidable,” she said, between using school-issued iPads and computers to do homework. “I would try to (take the phone at night) so she could just calm down and go to sleep. She would stay up all night using it if I would forget to go in there and remind her,” she said of one of her older daughters.

Anna Kovacevic, of New Baltimore, has set a family limit of age 13 to get a phone. She’s the mother of three children — ages 5, 9 and 10 — and one of the reasons she did that is because her older children are maturing at different paces.

“The word ‘teen’ means that you’re more mature, but it also set a time frame where I think both girls would be at the same level,” Kovacevic said.

Before then, she said, her children also naturally want more of her attention, so she is loathe to give that away to an electronic device.

It’s harder to bond with a child whose face is buried in a phone, Kovacevic said.

“It’s kind of pushing them to grow up a little bit faster,” she said. “Sometimes when they get that phone, they get a little more information, and I’d rather them come to me and ask me,” instead of Google.

At age 13, Kovacevic said, her children will be more ready to branch out and hang out with their friends away from their parents.

Until then, she said that she just makes sure that she knows how to get in touch with her children, and they with her, wherever they are.

“If they are somewhere, I already have that information. I know where they’re at. I’ll have them come home (to check in),” she said. “I think the communication gets lost when they have a phone.”

Lynnea Krupsky, who has four children — ages 11, 12, 15 and 16 — waits until eighth grade to hand over a phone.

Krupsky and her husband, who live in Rochester, gifted a phone to their eldest son at the beginning of eighth grade, after he made a last-minute decision to go on an out-of-state class trip.

“We didn’t necessarily have a game plan going into it, but that kind of thrust us into thinking he needed a phone,” she said. “That then set the precedent for eighth grade being the year that our kids would get a phone.”

Looking back, Krupsky wishes the couple had had more time to make that decision.

“We just weren’t prepared. We didn’t go into it having asked a lot of questions of other parents. … We jumped in quick and had to sort it out from there. Our biggest challenge was not having the time we would have wanted to say, ‘In the next two months, this is the direction we want to go, and what are we going to establish as the rules? What do we agree on as a family?’ It’s hard,” she said. “Some families go with, ‘We’ll trust you until you prove you’re not trustworthy.’”

Thus far, the family’s method has worked out well for the two children who have phones.

“It seems reasonable to us,” Krupsky said. “They had to wait and get through life without it, and it gave them a year, pre-high school, when they crave more of that privacy and they feel more grown up, so I felt like it ended up being a good time to help establish some of the boundaries and rules, at an age when they are a little more pliable.”

Today, Kruspky said it’s still tough to navigate all the issues related to teen phone usage — including privacy.

“Trying to find that middle ground of what privacy should be given, if at all, (is hard),” she said. “Should you be given privacy? Or is it just one of those things where it’s just too dangerous of a device, and the world that we live in is just too different to allow you to have privacy on it?”

One rule in the Krupsky house is that all kids’ phones are handed over to their parents before bed, preventing the temptation of late-night usage, when kids should be sleeping.

The couple also regularly educates their children on the dangers that lurk on the internet.

“It’s scary. There’s sex trafficking and people pretending to be someone they’re not. We try to scare the crap out of them as far as that goes, so they have their guard up and know not to give their trust to anybody,” Krupsky said.

Rochester police officer Amy Drehmer, who serves as a school liaison officer in the Rochester Community Schools district, said children are growing up in a very different world than the one we knew as kids.

Children today are constantly engrossed in technology, which means social media and smartphone usage often wreak havoc in schools.

All too often, teens encounter bullying and even sexting on their devices, causing low self-esteem, depression and even cellphone addiction in the quest to earn more likes from their peers.

“When I was in school, if you were bullied, you were bullied at school and you could go home and have a safe spot and be detached from that. When you give kids a cellphone, they are now connected 24/7 — if you don’t set up parameters — which means there can also be bullying that takes place when they should be in the safety of their own home,” Drehmer said.

Then there are online predators, who can try to connect with youth via social media and gaming apps.

“If somebody comes up to you when you’re walking home from school and says, ‘What’s your name? Where do you live? Who do you live with? What school do you go to? What grade are you in?’ What’s a kid nowadays going to do? They’re going to run and tell someone,” Drehmer said. “But now, through social media, the scary part is those same questions get asked of kids, and guess what? They answer them, because they think they’re safe because they’re in their home. It’s scary stuff.”

Drehmer said it’s important for parents to arm their kids with information so if someone starts asking for personal information or talking about sexual stuff, they know it’s time to get help from an adult.

The bottom line, according to Drehmer, is there really isn’t an ideal age to give your kid a cellphone. It all comes down to how much you can trust them and their usage.

“There is no right age,” she said. “A parent needs to make a judgment call on when they feel their kid is responsible enough to have one.”