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I’m Ruining My Daughter’s Life: What Age for a Cell Phone?

Starting a new school in eighth grade is tough. Starting a new school in eighth grade when you don’t have a phone is social suicide—or at least that’s what my 13-year-old wants me to believe.

“Today Cassie asked if I had Instagram and I had to say ‘No’,” she announces darkly after school. “I feel so left out.”

There are few words that inspire more panic in a parent. They make me want to high tail it to the mall, buy my daughter a phone, immediately sign her up for Instagram, Snapchat, Facetime, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, AND Houseparty, and let her stay up all night posting photos of unicorn Frappuccinos.

Instead, I plant my feet firmly on the floor and breathe deeply into my core. “You don’t need a phone.”

Cue hysterics.

Before you dismiss me as a desperately out-of-touch Tiger Mom with no concept of social currency or what it’s like to be a teenager in 2019, let me tell you a bit about my daughter: Her mind moves at warp speed. She’s smart, funny, explosive, highly anxious, tightly wound, and fond of typing emails in ALL CAPS to help get her point across.

Adding social media to the mix feels a bit like throwing kerosene on a fire.

I’m so torn. And she can smell my ambivalence.

“Today Hailey said she liked my shirt.”

“Well, that’s nice!”

“And then she asked if I have Instagram, and I had to say I don’t have Instagram. She was trying to make a connection, Mommy.”

The girl is good.

The following week I watch anxiously as she rounds the corner onto our street. I read her body language: are her shoulders more sloped than usual? Or is that a skip in her step I see? She walks through the door. I try for casual.

“How’d it go?”

“Okay, I guess. I had lunch with Bella and her friends.”

“That’s great!”

“Except they were all laughing about something they saw on Instagram last night, and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I felt so excluded.”

I wince inwardly and try for a new angle. “Not having a phone makes you unique! I bet they secretly think it’s cool.”

“No, Mommy, they don’t. They think it’s weird.  If I had a phone, we’d have something to talk about.”

Over the summer, I’d been able to quell her new-kid-at-school fears by telling her she’d be a refreshing addition to the class.

“Everybody loves new blood!”  I’d assured her.  But a few weeks in, with still no hint of a tribe, my assertion was growing thin.

“New blood!” I squeaked the other morning as she swung on her knapsack and stomped out the door.

“No one wants new BLOOD mommy! They’ve already FOUND their groups!!”

Okay. Maybe just Instagram.

She doesn’t need a phone for Instagram—she can use my phone.

How bad can it be?  My heart feels light as I picture my daughter forging connections under my watchful eye; posting cute photos of her converse clad feet, her stuffed animals, her cat. I congratulate myself for being such a permissive and collaborative parent. I can barely wait to share my idea after school.

“OH MY GOD!”

I beam. Permissive mom. Changing-with-the-times mom.

“That would be TERRIBLE!”

What?? Irritated mom. What do I gotta do to make this kid happy??

“They’d ask me if I have Instagram and I’d have tell them I have it on my MOTHER’S PHONE because you won’t let me have my OWN PHONE? They would think I was SO weird.”

Is it supposed to be this hard?

What do other parents do? Don’t they know what I know? Haven’t they seen Screenagers? Haven’t they read the stats? Don’t they know that teen anxiety is through the roof, that kids don’t sleep anymore, or read books, or make eye contact, or come out of their rooms? Don’t they know that they flunk out of university and can’t hold down a job???

Or maybe I’m catastrophizing.

After all, I want her to have friends. To feel connected. To laugh about someone’s silly post from the night before.

At bedtime, I kiss her in the dark and creep out of the room.

“I’m so excluded and you don’t even care.”

To say this at 10 p.m. when she looks small and vulnerable in her bed is just so manipulative.

But so effective.

I pause in the doorway. I’m out of ideas.

“What about inviting a few girls over after school?”

“You don’t get it.”

But I do get it. I get it the way I get why I wanted Nike sneakers in 1985. Because they were cool. And having them meant you were cool. And you were cool because you were like everybody else. But Nikes were just running shoes, not a portal into the unknown world of the internet.

I know there’s a phone in my daughter’s future, whether in six months or a year. It’s just, I can’t help think that by giving her a phone—and the swirl of social media that goes with it—that I’ll be complicit in snuffing out whatever tiny shred of childhood she has left.

And what parent in her right mind would want that?

Chris Deacon

Chris Deacon is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and film director from Toronto. Her work has appeared in Chatelaine and Today’s Parent. She is also the proud—and occasionally frustrated—mother of two teenaged girls. She loves writing about this age group and could happily read teen-related articles all day.

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