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Kids and phones
Kid in the hall: Playing on a parent’s smartphone is one thing, but when does a child really need to own their own device? (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

My 11-year-old son’s transition from elementary school to middle school will bring with it plenty of big changes. There will be a new schedule, new subject matter in classes, and new friends and classmates with varying levels of freedom.

As Henry prepares to leave fifth grade at one Seattle school to move up to sixth grade at another, it’s his focus on what’s important in life that I worry about the most. And by what’s important, I mean almost everything that’s not coming from an electronic device.

This is not a commentary on the evils of smart devices and video games. My kid has about as much access to them as any other kid his age (I previously wrote about how he was getting to know Alexa.) But it is about being a kid, and enjoying this stage of life without the pressure that can come from the status of which iPhone you carry or the pain that can come from what you just posted on social media.

In a “promotion ceremony” highlighted by its overall message of bringing more kindness into a country and world that could use it, two of Henry’s teachers punctuated their remarks by touching on technology specifically. The message was aimed not just at the class of fifth graders, but at the parents who filled the school’s auditorium. I’ve excerpted their comments below:

Jenny Bill, 21 years as a teacher:

“Students, I have some advice for you. I ask you to put down your electronic devices and be a kid while you still can. Go outside and play. Sit in a tree and daydream. Bake some cookies, build forts, learn how to sew, take apart an old vacuum cleaner to see how it works, go to the library and read late into the night.

“Choose kindness every time. It’s so much more important than proving you are right or better. Don’t write anything on social media you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. Ask someone sitting alone at lunch to eat with you. Invite someone to your birthday party that never gets invited to parties. Help someone in class that doesn’t understand the assignment. You get what I mean.

“Parents, I want to briefly address you. I hope you will have conversations amongst yourselves around the impact of social media on our kids. Remember middle school? Now add a device that makes it all so easy to spread rumors, to gossip, to bully, target, and harass others all in a matter of a few seconds. Middle school is challenging enough as it is. You hold the power in your hands, not Apple, not Microsoft, not Facebook. You. It’s you. Resist the peer and cultural pressure to put devices in your child’s hand. I know as parents we give them phones because we want to protect them and to reach them and have them reach us at any time. I argue that we are gaining a false sense of security and that there are far more negative than positive results from it. I speak from experience, not judgment. If I could correct any mistake I’ve ever made in my life, it would be to not have given my fifth-grade daughter a phone. It most certainly did not protect her. Thank you for letting me voice this to you today. I say this out of love and concern for your children.”

Playing “Angry Birds” at age 5. Modern parents have turned to devices on flights, in restaurants and everywhere else as a way to … avoid parenting. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Ellen Saltsman, 16 years as a teacher:

“A few months back, a friend shared an article with me about how convenient life has become and what it is doing to our society. … I can have groceries delivered to my door, I can see a picture of my baby niece on my phone without having to make a call, I can deposit a check by taking a picture of it, these kids can play video games online with other people alone in their rooms, I can read all the latest news on my phone when I am waiting anywhere. But there is something missing in all of this — I don’t say hello to the checker at the grocery store, I don’t talk to my sister on the phone, I don’t get a lollipop from the bank teller (they still have a bowl of them at the bank, by the way), these kids don’t talk or interact with peers who are physically in the same room as they are, and I don’t get to look out the window at the world going by. What is missing is human interaction — smiling at someone, exchanging polite conversation, being a member of a real community, not one that only exists on a Facebook page or Twitter account or a chatroom. I worry about what this is going to do for these kids as they grow up in a world where all of these conveniences are the norm, a regular part of their routine.

“This group of students present here today is an amazing group. I had one of the best times yet at Camp Orkila. All these kids had fun just playing outside for three days, hanging out with their classmates, running around the woods, building up the nerve to go on the giant swing or the zipline, looking at organisms in a pond, pointing out deer by the side of the path or field — and none of them used a phone or a tablet or a game system or a computer. No one even mentioned them.

“Fifth graders — be present for each other. Share stories, experience life, laugh, dance, be silly — do all those things without having to snap pictures or post your experience or post your high score or level. Keep those memories right in your head.

“Your generation is fortunate to have such great technology — such amazing things you can use and learn to make life more convenient. You can make awesome playlists in minutes — do you know how long it would take me to make a mix tape when I was your age?! Embrace and appreciate all those conveniences — but also don’t forget to learn how to say hello to the store clerk, how to change a tire, how to start a campfire without a fire-starter log, how to make cookies from scratch or how to write and mail a letter to a relative who lives far away.”

I’ve got my own work to do when it comes to being present and not on my phone in front of my kids. Only so many excuses surrounding “important work email” are believed before it’s clear that they know I’m following another Twitter rant, checking a Mariners score or posting an image on Instagram.

RELATED: New research finds 95% of teens have access to a smartphone; 45% online ‘almost constantly’

Often times it’s only after they are in bed and I’m left with the glow of a screen that I realize I should have used our time together more wisely.

I don’t want my new middle schooler to completely ignore technology over the next few years. Surely I get the importance — and the entertainment value — of the endless stream of information that is available to him online. And teaching him about mobile photography, for instance, has been a fun hobby for us to share.

But I’m going to take his teachers’ advice this summer and make sure that our entire family is better about looking up at the world rather than down at our devices. And come fall, when Henry starts sixth grade, one of the smartest things he’ll do is head to school without a smartphone.

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