My daughter was a creative genius, and then we bought her an iPhone
Photo by Stephanie Gruner Buckley
My daughter used to be an artist. She would spend hours in the TV room, not watching TV, but on the floor surrounded by scraps of paper, beads and string, making collages and jewelry, or copying cartoon characters into notebooks.
She loved to sew. With a needle and thread, she would make dresses and hats and shoes for her dolls. Before I got around to buying her fabric, she used construction paper. My brother gave her a small wooden artist manikin one Christmas. She made clothes for that too.
She wasn’t allowed TV on school days, but we were lax on weekends. She didn’t watch much TV anyway. She was too busy doing something else. When friends came by, she would show them her art books, page after page.
At ten, she asked for an iPod Touch. She was desperate to have one. All of her friends had either iPod Touches or iPhones. For months, she had been carrying around a phone she made by stitching yellow and black fabric around cardboard. She made a bee for a logo. She called it her Queen Bee phone.
My husband and I said she could have a phone when she turned 14. That’s when Bill Gates said he gave his kids phones, and he knew better than we did about tech. But my daughter was starting to use my iPhone, and I wasn’t controlling her time or restricting content.
With an iPod Touch, we could control both time and content. Yes, she was young, but we would teach good phone habits and manners early. No more than an hour a day. Never after 7 pm, and she couldn’t sleep with it in her room. No phone at the table, nor on family outings like walks in the nearby woods.
We told ourselves she only wanted one because her friends had them. It was a status symbol. We didn’t want her to be like one of those people who are denied TV or candy in childhood, only to become addicts later. She’d grow bored soon enough, just like with the TV. We gave her an iPod Touch that Christmas.
Of course, the iPod Touch wasn’t like the TV, and she never got bored. It was more like a gateway drug. Not long after getting the iPod Touch, she started pushing for a real phone. She would be starting a new school in September, she argued, and taking a bus for the first time. She couldn’t call me with the SIM-less iPod Touch. The August before she started her new school, we bought her an iPhone SE. It’s been hell ever since.
Bill Gates knew best. We should have waited until she was older. Smartphones aren’t like TVs; they’re like crack. And little by little, our daughter has chipped away at our rules and resolve. Insidious apps have made things worse, as has sloppy parenting.
It’s a rainy Saturday. She’s an only child. She wants to talk with her friends. I don’t see any harm in FaceTime. We exclude FaceTime from the hour limit. She wants Roblox. All the kids have it, and it seems harmless enough. She’s building her dream house. I tell myself it’s creative and she can play it with friends. Then there’s TikTok and Instagram. She’s underage, but she says her friends all have these apps. Initially, I refuse, but she wears me down. I let her get private accounts. I tell myself at least she’s learning dance routines and taking photos. Then she wants Snapchat. I cave again.
Somewhere along the way, I realize that apps like TikTok and Instagram are impervious to Apple’s Screen Time limit. They work even when the rest of her phone shuts down. To keep the peace, I let it slide.
An hour of use always seemed unrealistic anyway, as did the 7 pm cut-off. My daughter doesn’t return home from school until 6:30 pm and still has to eat, bathe, and get ready for bed. She needs time to unwind. We change her phone curfew from 7 pm to 8 pm, but soon that slips too.
Over time, I break my own rules. If she’s eating dinner early and by herself, I’ll let her keep watching James Charles on YouTube. He is creative and funny. I have another meal to make and dishes to clean. Why should she have to sit in silence? I’m exhausted from fighting about the phone; sometimes I want to be nice and for her to be happy.
I find myself giving in when she asks to take the phone on walks. She says she wants to do a TikTok while we’re in the “aesthetic” woods (including one with me) and take photos for her Instagram account. I tell myself, at least she still wants to go on walks and wants me in her videos.
Yet still, each day is a battle over only one thing. We’re about to leave the house. My daughter isn’t ready. She hasn’t brushed her teeth or made her bed. She’s looking at her phone. I say to put down the phone and get ready. She brushes her teeth and goes back to the phone. I say give me the phone; you haven’t made your bed. She says the phone is charging. I yank it out of the wall. She pulls the cover over her bed, fluffs the pillows, and asks for the phone.
My daughter is like a junkie with the phone. She can’t find her jacket or her shoes, yet she always knows exactly where her phone is. She can’t leave the house without it. I say, “leave it; you don’t always need it.” Sometimes I stand my ground; sometimes I don’t. Even when she goes to the park with friends, she spends half the time making TikToks. We have a shared account. I see the videos they post: sweet 11-year-old girls on a sunny day in a park, copying a stranger’s hand jive in front of a three-inch screen. It takes a second to realize that in each and every little hand is another phone. One night, I finally get around to checking her Screen Time. I realize with horror that she’s spent nine hours on the phone that day. She was only awake at 11.
I try to remain good-humored. But some days I get so angry, I rage against the phone. I say the iPhone is evil. It’s stealing her childhood. I say she’ll never look back and wish she’d spent more time on a phone. She says I’m absolutely right. She swears to use it less. My daughter will say anything to get me out of her room so she can get back to her phone.
Occasionally, I take the phone and hide it. I order her to make art or read a book. What am I saying? But it’s no use. Her old pleasures are like chores compared to spending time on a phone. There are tears and screaming. She hates me. I’m the worst mom ever. She eventually calms down and comes to say how sorry she is and how right I was — all the while scanning the room to find her phone. She really is like a junkie.
The worst part is that our child has changed. She used to rush to our bed as soon as she woke, demanding cuddles and to “Talk Friends.” We played with puppets and stuffed animals in the morning, getting the “friends” to sing and act out scenes from plays like Robin Hood and Beauty and the Beast. We all got involved. Those days are gone. I understand she’s probably too big for “Talk Friends,” but it’s heartbreaking watching her race into our room each morning to grab her phone.
My daughter doesn’t make collages or jewelry or sew anymore. A child who used to read in the bath won’t pick up a book unless threatened with the loss of her phone. Getting her to make a card for a family member — something she once did for fun — is like getting her to clean her room. She’ll do it, but grudgingly. Some days I get sad thinking about what happened to the little kid who used to corner visitors and make them go page-by-page through her art books.
If only I’d waited to get her a phone. This is all my fault. But then I wonder if it wasn’t inevitable. She was never going to make plays with puppets or sew clothes for dolls forever. When friends visit, she occasionally asks them to watch her latest TikTok videos. Some are even funny and creative. Or so I tell myself. It helps with the guilt.
Stephanie Gruner Buckley
Writer. Wife. Mom. News junkie. Not necessarily in that order. Londoner and native Floridian.
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