Grandchildren and Cellphones

Jul 17, 2022 by

How Do We Keep Them Apart – or Should We?

By Genie Davis

It’s a provocative question in a digital age: How do I keep my grandchildren away from cellphones – and should I?

For many grandparents, cellphones in the hands of our grandchildren have become both a ubiquitous experience and one we try — perhaps with some degree of frustration — to regulate, or even stop.

And yet – just because we didn’t have access to these tiny, hand-sized computers/ televisions/ games all in one, and just because my children didn’t have that type of access – should I really be eager to put a stop to cellphone use for this new generation?

I know the answer to that is not one-sided. First, like anything else, moderation is key when it comes to cellphone use. Just as it’s perfectly fine for kids to enjoy an ice cream, it doesn’t mean they should have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For me, cellphone use can be approached in the same way: It’s a privilege, a treat, rather than an absolute right. Second, I feel that cellphone use depends on a grandchild’s age and what s/he is using that cellphone for. And last, but certainly not least, I need to respect the rules about cellphone use that my children want to enforce for their child.

Starting with my last point, if my grandchildren’s parents don’t want them using their cellphones, except to call home, then it’s up to me to remind them of that fact, and take the phone away if they are not listening. On the other end of the spectrum, if it’s perfectly okay with mom and dad for my grandchild to watch movies on their phones before bed or play games on their phones if they are quiet and uninterested in an adult activity, I feel I should be at least open to allowing that. Naturally it’s my house and my rules, so if I want my grandchild to put that phone aside, I explain what I want, and I make sure I can provide the entertainment and/or in-person stimulus they may be used to getting from that phone. If I’m asking them not to watch a movie before bedtime on the phone, then instead, I offer them a movie-going experience in a theater, or suggest we watch something on T.V. together. I read, take them to a play or puppet show, play a board game. Whatever activity I prefer that they did, I make sure that I can provide it, and my company in doing it.

As mentioned, the age of my grandchild is also key when it comes to cell phone use. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old, used to posing for selfies with me, mom and dad, and friends, since he was a baby. He now loves and expects to use my phone to take his own pictures. He has also figured out, from looking at those pictures, how to assemble his own slide shows on my iPhone, and how to rudimentarily edit videos. I don’t just allow this, I encourage it: It’s creative, it’s fun for him, and to achieve these digital skills at such an early age is pretty cool. It’s an entirely different world for kids today with their phones, like nothing we, or our children, experienced at such a young age. But that doesn’t mean that different is bad.

Likewise, on a rainy afternoon, when he’s tired, when we’ve read his favorite stories and it’s almost nap time, and he asks to ‘watch something,’ I prefer it to be snuggled in my arms while watching an episode of one of his favorite children’s shows on my phone to having him sit on the sofa in front of the big screen T.V. It’s a more intimate experience.

Traveling, he often watches music videos on my phone or we engage Google maps and he can follow our route. My significant other’s grandson, a year younger, also does this and has learned how to colorize and solarize photographs.

Several of my friends have pre-teen grandchildren. Older kids are naturally going to want to listen to “their” music on their phones, talk on Snapchat, use their Instagram stories; they will Facetime, Skype, DM or IM. This is how they communicate, in the same way in which I would have sent an email or – gasp, how quaint – picked up a phone and placed a call. Just as it would’ve been rude for me to make a call to friends while someone in person was conversing with them, my friends will often remind their older grandchildren of this, and make sure the kids know that the person you are with must come first in your attention.

Which brings me to the final and most important point of handling grandkids and their – or my borrowed – cellphone: Moderation.

I believe that as long as we are not simply “parking” our grandchildren with digital devices to entertain them or allowing them to ignore me while maintaining an entirely digital world, cellphone use should be accepted as a part of their lives.

Naturally, I feel I should set healthy boundaries, such as: Not at the dinner table when we should be enjoying a meal and conversation; not when there are outside adventures to be had, whether it’s climbing a mountain trail or scaling a playground jungle gym; not when there are activities to participate in, such as art, cooking, sports, or music.

But when there is downtime, travel time, endless-to-a-child transportation time, can the cellphone be a valuable, even terrific entertainment device? A resounding “Yes” from me. There are games that enhance motor skills in young children, and encourage cooperative play in older kids. There are ways to reach friends and other family members, that many kids expect to reach, and enjoy reaching. There are books to listen to, music videos for all age groups to enjoy.

And I’ve found that phones can enhance “real life” experiences as well: Photographing or filming them; simply illuminating them with a flashlight; playing music to make a soundtrack for them; looking up the history or geography of a location or seeking out the back-story information to everything from amusement park attractions to butterflies.

So, in my house, if I want my grandchildren “kept away” from digital devices, I need to provide interesting alternatives, from books to nature hikes to gardening. If I want to set boundaries and encourage responsible cellphone use, I will allow them to use these phones as an adjunct to activities and I show them features they may enjoy using if they are young enough to not already know them. I try to support learning new skills, whether it’s composing electronic music, shaping slide shows, or drawing with an app that reminds me of the more tactile days of Etch-a-Sketch.

With my friends’ older kids, I’m there to help show them how to use a phone as a research device rather than a gaming tool, how to shoot and edit films on their phones, and even how to use a map.

And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll share those cellphone learning experiences and learn something myself! Ω