When journalist Susan Maushart decided to impose a six-month digital detox on her three teenagers, their first reaction (once the shrieking died down) was “But what about our friends?”
The rules of the experiment, detailed in her 2010 book The Winter of Our Disconnect, included a ban on all screen-based technology from the family home, visitors’ devices included.
“No one will want to hang out at our house - ever again,” the kids wailed.
But to everybody’s surprise, exactly the opposite happened. Maushart’s home became a magnet for teen gatherings and sleepovers, precisely because of the technology ban.
Kids were attracted by the novelty of boardgames by candlelight, cookie-baking marathons and hide-and-seek in the dark - “not pastimes you normally associate with 15-year-olds,” Maushart observed.
The smartphone revolution
But in that simpler time - only eight years ago! - smartphones were not an issue. Today, all that has changed.
The average child gets her phone at age 10 - and 16% have one by age 8. By the time they’re teenagers, 95% own (or have regular access to) a smartphone.
And of course wherever kids go, their phones go too. To school. To activities. And most especially to sleepovers.
Freelance writer Beth Swanson, whose daughter recently turned 13, speaks for many parents when she asks “What happens at 2 am, when the games are done, and a parent is left with a group of kids, all with relatively unsupervised access to phones?”
What can go wrong
What happens are a range of worrying behaviours that can threaten parents’ ability to provide duty of care to guests.
Taking photos of sleeping friends - and then posting them without consent. Messaging and posting to those who weren’t invited. Pranking and daring. Streaming the party live. Checking out adult sites. Bingeing on Fortnite. Creating “finstas” - or fake Instagram accounts. The list goes on and on.
Why it can go wrong
Even “nice” kids can easily spin out of control at such times, warns Family Zone cyber expert Martine Oglethorpe, owing to what psychologists call “diminished inhibition.” In layman’s terms, that means the sleepover environment can make kids’ good judgment go walkabout.
There are a number of factors here. One is the concentrated peer pressure of a number of children in one place over many hours. Another is sleep deprivation. A third is simply the lure of unlimited social interaction.
As a result of all this, observes Oglethorpe, “the ‘thinking’ part of the brain gets hijacked by the more emotional one, which doesn’t always think through consequences so well, when the prefrontal cortex gets taken over by the limbic system in the later hours of the night.”
What to do about it
You want your child to have a good time. You don’t want to be ‘that’ parent. But there are serious concerns here.
So what’s a parent to do?
Oglethorpe, director of the Melbourne-based e-safety consultancy The Modern Parent, has five children of her own, aged between 6 and 17. She urges parents to consider the developmental stages of the children in question and set rules accordingly.
For young children
Consider making the sleepover a phone-free (or even internet-free) zone
Make sure kids know they can use your phone if they want to call mum or dad
For older kids
allow reasonable access to allow them to have fun and take their photos and selfies
Make sure they know beforehand that they’ll be asked to hand over their phones at a pre-arranged time
Be sure to let parents of guests know what your sleepover policy will be, and provide your own phone number as an emergency contact
“These rules may well change as kids get older, but for primary kids and tweens it should be a no- brainer that they don’t keep their phones on them overnight. As it should be anyway if they were at home!” Oglethorpe adds.
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