The problem started over Christmas when Mike bought two new iPads for everyone to use. You see, before then, Mazzy and Harlow had been using our old iPads, which were first generation iPads. They had little storage space, loaded shows and games slowly, ran out of battery quickly, crashed often, didn’t allow you to connect to iCloud, and couldn’t use the latest iOS, so many apps and games were off limits. When we went over to people’s houses and other kids were playing Minecraft all together using the same wifi password, Mazzy’s iPad wasn’t able to do it and she had to find something else to do. (That was okay with me, because I LOATHE kids playing on their devices together on play dates.)
All of these things were a source of much frustration, leading us to believe that we had no choice but to get newer devices.
In retrospect, these issues were a blessing in disguise. iPads were fun but they weren’t the “be end all” of entertainment. They were a good distraction, but usage wasn’t unlimited. Screen time was built right into the limited battery life. To download a movie, you had to make concessions and get rid of something else. Texting and email weren’t even a possibility.
When the new iPads landed in our home, it was like my kids had been pushing around wagons and suddenly had access to Porches. Everything loaded so fast and the battery could last a few days before it needed to be plugged in. All the games and movies they’d been wanting to download were suddenly all available to them; they only needed us to say “yes.” Because we saw how much their new Grade A devices were sucking them in, we created an iCloud family account. This was to monitor screen time and set time limits that would lock the iPad down.
Ironically, this attempt to limit their screen time came with a problematic concession. It gave them both email addresses which they could use to send us text messages. At the beginning, it was fun to get a text from Mazzy when I was out. She would send me a string of unicorn and lollipop emojis with an “I love you, Mom” at the end. Then she figured out how to use gifs and had a knack for sending the perfect dancing bear or cat playing the piano as a response. Her texts cracked me up. At this point, Mike and I were the only people in her address book.
Then, came the fateful day when Mazzy’s Hebrew school teacher sent an email saying that the kids could bring their iPads to class for a multimedia project. They were working in pairs and Mazzy and a friend were making a stop motion animation project about the Garden of Eden. The project itself wasn’t the bad part. It was that once Mazzy and her friends had all their devices in one place, with no parental supervision, they realized they could exchange email addresses and start texting each other from home at any time of day. Before this, her friends had been communicating via google docs, something they had access to through school, but was pretty primitive in how it worked as a communication tool. Text messages opened up a direct communication line, complete with notifications, and they all started texting each other incessantly.
Of course, all of Mazzy’s friends have different rules and restrictions around their devices, so some kids seem mostly absent for the week, while others can text twenty times a night. We learned we needed to turn off notifications pretty quickly because, even when the iPad was off limits, Mazzy was getting constantly distracted. “See? Now I know how you feel all the time!” Mazzy told me. I said, “Mazzy, I’m usually exchanging texts with your dad about school pick-up or messages about work. I’m not just saying ‘hiiiiiiiiiii’ a billion times until someone responds.” We ended up turning off the iPad and putting it in a closet until the weekend, when her screen time is less restricted.
When I was little, I remember being on the phone constantly. I don’t remember at what age this started exactly, but I get that text messages are the new way to communicate with your friends. The problem is that smart phones and tablets have infinitely more functions than the phones we used when we were little. Even as an adult, I know that when I go on my phone to send a message, the next thing I know, I am scrolling through Instagram, reading an article, checking email, etc. Kids are no different and equally tempted. I would tell Mazzy she was allowed to return a text and then ten minutes later, I would realize she was still on her device, doing god knows what.
The texting issue escalated one day at Hebrew school when the kids all had their iPads before class. Now, keep in mind, having her device at Hebrew school was the first time Mazzy had ever had an iPad without parental supervision. Mazzy started a group text exchange with her friends, adding both Mike and I by accident. So, there I am at work, and I suddenly get bombarded with the most insane flurry of nonsense ever. Within the text chain, one kid messaged a gif of Donald Trump and in reply, Mazzy messaged about fifteen Trump gifs back. Now, I know, Mazzy doesn’t have the context to understand what any of these gifs mean, beyond something that makes the President look silly, but it looked to me like a few of them had adult meanings that were totally not appropriate for kids.
When she came home that day, I asked her why she was using her iPad in class for something other than her project. She said they were just texting each other before class began. I let her know that she had put me on that text exchange too. Her response was to get incredibly embarrassed, take her iPad to the other room and text the same group— DELETE THIS NOW OR ELSE. Then everyone wanted to know why she wanted them to delete the exchange and she, being nine, and just wanting the problem solved, got really upset. She came to me, in a panic, because she was now in a fight with all her friends, who weren’t listening to her.
We went through the text exchange together and that’s when I explained a few things:
1) You can’t delete a text exchange. You can delete it on your own phone but that doesn’t mean it gets deleted on other people’s devices. Once a text is sent, it is out there for good.
2) “DELETE THIS NOW OR ELSE” sounds like a threat and I understand why her friends were questioning her intentions. She never said that her parents were on the exchange or why she was upset. Moreover, I could see how Mazzy was interpreting their responses to be confrontational, when it’s possible they were just curious. I explained that it is very hard to interpret someone’s tone over text. I gave her the example of the word “okay” being said nicely and being said sarcastically. “When I say it out loud, you can tell which way I mean it, but when I write it over text, it could be perceived the opposite of how I intended.” I told her that there are many fights that start over text or email because the tone is misinterpreted, even with adults.
3) Even if you send things in a private group, anything can be screenshot, shown to parents, shown to other kids outside of the group and shown to teachers. Do not send anything in writing that could get you in trouble if it was shown to someone outside of the group. Everything you write in a text message should be something you would be comfortable sharing with everyone in your school, including the grown-ups. If you have something private you want to discuss, do it in person.
4) It doesn’t matter if your dad and I are included in a text chain or not, because as your parents, we are free to look at your text messages whenever we want. That device is not yours, it is ours, and everything you use it for is documented in our family iCloud account ( I showed her the screen time breakdown) and subject to review by us at any time. If you want to have a private conversation with your friend, do it in person. If you want to write down private thoughts, put them in your diary.
5) A lot of gifs have adult meanings that you don’t understand, particularly ones of the President. I explained that one of the gifs she sent had an inappropriate meaning that I know went over her head, but someone receiving the message might not realize it was a mistake. As a general rule, never use a Trump gif. Ever.
6) If this all sounds complicated, it’s because it is. I explained to Mazzy that this is why we have told her that we are not getting her a phone for a few more years, because self-control and nuance over text messaging is hard for a 4th grader to understand, let alone put into practice. Most kids in Mazzy’s school seem to get iPhones in 6th grade when they start going to school on their own. We haven’t guaranteed anything yet, but that is the benchmark I have set in my head. Having the ability to text her friends over an iPad was a loophole that we weren’t expecting and as a result, we are all dealing with this stuff a little earlier than we intended.
7) We don’t want to take away her iPad or her access to her friends completely, but just as screen time is limited to the weekends, for now, we are limiting text messaging to the weekends too. I also let her know that I have the ability to turn off iMessage altogether if it becomes a real problem.
Mazzy was incredibly upset and embarrassed about how all this went down. It was understandable. It involved both her parents and all her friends in a public exchange that she wished never happened. I explained that she was actually very lucky that she could learn all these important lessons over something that had very minor consequences. I also let her know that there have been older kids in her school who had gotten into far more trouble (like suspensions and expulsions) over far worse things that happened over text. And I told her that everyone at some point regrets something that they send over text.
Then I let Mazzy know a good thing that she had working to her advantage; something she didn’t quite appreciate until that moment. “Do you know that you happen to be sitting next to a person who makes a living at crafting language for people to read online?” It’s true. There are few things I consider myself an expert in, but THIS is one of them. Together, we wrote messages to her group of friends that explained why she had asked them to delete the exchange and apologized for getting upset. They quickly wrote her back in a way that made her feel much better. I let her know that if there was ever a fight that seemed to be erupting over text, she could come to me to help her deescalate it.
Then we shut her iPad and put it back in the closet.
There have been a lot more issues that have come up in recent weeks about screen time and iPad usage, so I am planning to write additional posts about how we are handling these things— like regulating screen time, as well as preparing for Mazzy and Harlow’s exposure to the greater online world, which is becoming more and more unavoidable.
I mean, take that Hebrew school project. In addition to opening up the flood of text messages, Mazzy told me last night that her and her friend googled “Adam and Eve” and the first search result was a link to “adult sex toys.” She said they did not click on it and she didn’t understand what it was. I told her there is a lot of weird stuff on the internet that people don’t use in real life, and left it at that, for now.
But yeah. I think my nine-year-old googling biblical references for a Hebrew school project and landing on sex toys is pretty much the epitome of what happens when you give your kids access to the internet.
Not a solution, but a warning.