Ah, parenting in the Internet age: It’s an experience full of mystery and wonder! Whether you’re at the local school, a youth sporting event, or a kid’s birthday party, it’s common to see groups of young children, sometimes as young as third or fourth grade, huddled blank-eyed over their collective smartphones. It’s a sight to behold, really, but it pales in comparison to the paralyzing realization that ultimately comes next: No matter how hard you work in your own house to protect your kids — no Internet, no iPads, and no smartphones of any sort — there is no way to prevent some kid with a smartphone from someday giving your child their first eyeful of hard-core Internet porn.
Over the past few weeks, a series of terrifying articles has illustrated in startling relief what should be perfectly obvious: Children should not have the Internet in their pockets. Writing in the Dallas Morning News on December 12, Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa described in horrifying detail how her sixth-grade daughter was exposed to rape porn at a birthday party. Yes, you read that correctly: Rape porn. It was shared via Snapchat, by a cadre of sixth-grade boys who laughed as they watched.
Think about it: They were laughing. In sixth grade, they were already desensitized. Moreover, thanks to their parents, they had the Internet in their pockets, ready to serve up something even more brutal the next time around.
“Our children are growing up in a very different world than the one we knew as kids,” Herndon-De La Rosa writes. “Gone are the days of your grandfather’s Playboy. Today, children have access to explicit, violent and degrading sexual content in the palm of their hands at all times.”
On December 13, over at Medium, Sloane Ryan reported on her experience posing as an eleven-year-old girl on Instagram — and the sexual predators that targeted her at an “unnervingly fast” pace. After nine months of tracking countless online abuses, Ryan writes, “we still continue to be stunned by the breadth of cruelty and perversion we see.” Meanwhile, on December 15, the writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry published an in-depth look at the scientific research surrounding Internet porn and its nightmarish impact on the human brain.
Batten down the hatches, people. I’m here to chew gum and be honest about certain technology-related life choices, and I’m all out of gum. Please consider the following, which I hold to be an important truth: If you’re a parent, you should not give your child a smartphone. If they already have one, you should take it away.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you might be thinking. “My kid would never access inappropriate content on the Internet. How dare you? My kid only texts me and her grandma and her catty group of seventh-grade friends who, now that I actually think about it, are preteens who can get inexplicably mean when they’re online and probably shouldn’t be texting at all and perhaps this is all a gigantic farce and . . . wait. Stop. What was I saying again?”
Exactly. And you know what? All of that texting can be done from a widely available, non-Internet connected phone — the Z1 Gabb, the Light Phone 2, and the Jitterbug Flip are examples — that has the added bonus of not providing access to the World Wide Web of porn. (My friend Brooke Shannon, the founder of Wait Until 8th and an amazing resource when it comes to navigating the digital age, has a helpful roundup of alternative communication devices here.)
“Whatever,” you might also be thinking. “My kid has an iPhone, but I have it locked down. All the parental controls are in place!” That’s certainly better than nothing, but have you ever met the Internet? Like those rogue, murderous, genetically engineered dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Internet can morph. It always finds a way.
“Kids are clever, and when it comes to technology, they are ten steps ahead of us,” Shannon points out. “If they want to access something, they can often figure out how to get around parental controls.” Sure, you could devote the totality of your energy to an endless and frustrating and risky game of digital whack-a-mole for the rest of your child’s school-age years. Or you could just give your kid a phone that doesn’t have Internet access. One option certainly seems easier and safer to me.
But what if you’ve already given your kid a smartphone? That’s okay. You can take it away. Give them a shiny new replacement phone that doesn’t access the Internet, ignore the whining, and voila! You’ve made the world a better place.
If your kid gets super angry and won’t stop stomping around the house and groaning and throwing themselves on the floor in agony, you always can just show them this column and throw me under the bus. The best part of this plan is that when they try to send me some good old-fashioned hate email, they’ll reach for their iPhone and IT WILL NO LONGER BE THERE! They won’t even be able to do it! Oh, man. I’m laughing just thinking about it right now.
In the end, of course, this is no joke. Unless you’ve stuck your head underground for the past five years, you’ve likely noticed the growing reams of stories detailing the apparent correlation between the Internet, smartphone technology, and a striking rise in mental illness in young people. San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge has written about this in detail, noting how youth depression and anxiety and suicide attempts have surged since 2009. This, of course, is when smartphones began to take over the world.
In his piece on the addictive nature of Internet porn, Gobry notes that we “are running a massive, unprecedented experiment on our own brains.” I don’t want my kids to be a part of that experiment, but thanks to the proliferation of smartphones in the hands of other children, I’m beginning to fear that I won’t have a choice. As Rod Dreher pointed out at The American Conservative this week, taking smartphones away “has to be a collective action if it’s going to have any hope of working.” If your kid has a smartphone, please consider this seriously. The Internet shouldn’t be in the hands of children. Adults can barely handle it as it is.