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He texts, she texts

What better way for a father and daughter
to debate the merits of having
a cellphone in middle school?



A little more than a year ago, my wife and I decided to get our then-12-year-old daughter, Josephine, a smartphone. We did so after months of anguished deliberation, having spoken to dozens of parents, nearly all of whom stressed how quickly their children got sucked into an addictive dance with the device. Ultimately, we felt that Josie needed a way to communicate with us, and with her friends, who all have phones. It’s a decision we’re still struggling with.

But rather than penning one of those anguished parental accounts (How the iPhone Turned My Teen into a Screen Zombie!), I asked Josie if we could have a frank discussion — by text, naturally — about how the phone has changed her life and our family dynamic. We have edited out the emojis.

Illustration by: Richard Mia

STEVE: You were against the idea of getting a phone at first. Why?

JOSEPHINE: If you’ll recall, I did want a phone for a long time. When I was in fifth grade and even the beginning of sixth grade, I begged you guys to get me a phone so I could be like … EVERYONE! But I gradually began to see how the iPhone affected my friends and classmates. Everyone was hooked on social media, and one of my main concerns about getting a phone was that I’d end up measuring my worth by the number of followers I had on Instagram. I also noticed that people never spent free time thinking or talking. Basically, when you’re bored, out comes the phone.

It was funny to see the looks on people’s faces when the issue came up:

“What kind of phone do you have?”

“I don’t have a phone.”

“Oh, that’s sad.”

“Actually, I don’t want one. I prefer reading.”

STEVE: It makes me sad that reading set you apart, but I know that’s the world we’re living in now. It’s why we got you a phone, ultimately. Because your friends wound up texting Mom’s phone to make plans with you. She would then pass the message along to you, and pass along your response. Watching this process made me miss the old days (stop sighing) when kids called each other’s houses or just came over. With your generation, everything gets routed through the phone — plans, invitations, gossip.

That said, Mom and I did try to resist. We signed a pledge not to get you a phone until eighth grade. But we got worried that you’d miss out on a big part of the social experience of middle school. We gave in to peer pressure, I guess. Did we make a mistake?

JOSEPHINE: It’s definitely a peer pressure situation. It’s kind of impossible to communicate without a phone these days. I don’t know if you made a mistake. It is nice to be able to set up my own hangouts, for one thing. At the same time, the phone is not essential to my life at this point. Eventually, I know it will be. For now, it’s just a nice thing to have, so you probably could’ve waited longer to get me one. Or you could have gotten me a dumb phone, one that only does calling and texting.

STEVE: Our original plan WAS to get you a flip phone! We were worried that giving you an iPhone — which is literally engineered to be addictive — would be a problem. But our phone company would only provide you a phone line if we used Mom’s old iPhone. That’s not much of an excuse, I realize. But it is a good example of how big corporations compel people to use their products.

Then again, we did have you sign a contract, pledging to use the phone only for calling and texting and using a few necessary apps. No games. No videos. No social media. We set down other ground rules, too, such as leaving the phone with us at night. You are following those rules. Right? RIGHT?

JOSEPHINE: Yes, I try to follow the rules set out in your very long and FANCY contract. I mostly use it for texting, photos, calling, and an app that tells me when the bus is arriving.

I looked around the bus yesterday morning, and literally every single kid was on his/her/their phone. Almost all of them were playing games or on social media. If I did those things, I would definitely be on my phone a lot more. One thing that actually helps is Screen Time, which tells me how long I’m on the phone per day.

STEVE: I do the same thing with Screen Time! And I’m always shocked at how much time I spend on the phone. It’s almost like those minutes get sucked into some void. What I remember from my own childhood (yes, I can hear you sighing again) is that kids were bored a lot more. Corporations have figured out that the most valuable resource we have left as a species is attention, and they’ve created these devices that capture our attention. The result is that we’re never bored, but we’re also never fully paying attention to the world around us.

JOSEPHINE: What I see is that phones serve a dual purpose of cutting kids off and sucking them in. I was reading an article about phone addiction, and the person they profiled sounded so lonely. We learn about cause and effect in science class. In terms of social isolation, the phone is both cause AND effect.

I think video games and social media are the most dangerous apps. Take this weekend, for example. We went up to Maine with Grandpa, and my brother convinced me to download a … GAME! (I know. I know. Josephine HOW COULD YOU?!) We got Mom’s permission first. But once we had it? Forget it. Jude was asking me to play it all the time. He wouldn’t play Monopoly with me because he had to play the phone game. He played in the car constantly. And I felt drawn to my phone like never before. I erased the game as soon as we got back, mostly because Mom told me to get rid of it.

STEVE: The problem, from what I can see, isn’t that video games are bad. It’s that they’re now ubiquitous. When I was growing up, you had to go to an arcade and plunk down a quarter to play a video game. I shudder to think what I would have been like if I’d had a smartphone at your age. I’m guessing they would have had to surgically remove it from my hand. But I don’t fear the games as much as I do the social media stuff, because the drama of school now follows kids home. There’s no respite from the gossip and the insults and the popularity mongering. You don’t get any time to recover from the stress of socializing with, like, 500 other insecure teenagers.

JOSEPHINE: Yes, the social media biz. My, my, is that a dark and tangled abyss. Some of my friends are on social media, and a lot of kids definitely talk about it. I hear people bragging all the time about the number of followers they have. The more followers you have, the more oohs and ahhs you get. It’s a pretty horrible way to measure your worth, IMO. I sometimes do feel a little left out, because there are numerous references to memes, for one thing. And people use social media to spread good messages. But there’s also a lot of hate language. And the sites normalize behavior that’s awful and offensive.

STEVE: Smartphones and social media and whatever comes along next are all just tools. What matters is how we use them. In the end, that’s why Mom and I gave you the phone. We felt you would make good choices and develop good habits. And that’s what’s happened, so far as we can tell. You’ve remained the thoughtful and compassionate person we know and love.

I’m thinking of something that happened last month, when we were driving down to visit Grandma and Grandpa. I spotted you in the rearview mirror, staring down intently. And, as you’ll recall, I said something perfectly obnoxious: “Jos, I want you off that phone!”

To which you calmly responded: “I’m not on my phone. I’m reading.”

I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.

JOSEPHINE: I think all in all, the phone can be a useful tool. It can also be distracting, isolating, and mind-numbing. The important thing is to try not to be DEPENDENT on the phone. It’s a supplement to your life, not YOUR WHOLE LIFE. I live in a world of technology. I know I’ll be using it for the rest of my life. But I hope that my children, and their children, can always have a self beyond an online presence, beyond a constant stream of simulation.

Everyone deserves that.

Steve Almond is a writer best known as the father of Josephine Colette Almond. In her spare time, Josephine, who is in the seventh grade, enjoys reading, writing, and drawing. She enjoys most of her classes, especially Spanish. She sings with the Boston Children’s Chorus and dreams of owning a pig.

• This story originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.