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I’m a technology director for a school district. One of the many hats I wear is educating parents and students on cyberbullying. I have presented to thousands of parents on cell phone use, inappropriate apps they should be aware of (but aren’t!) and have given advice to parents struggling with such topics as group texts gone wrong and “finstas.” I have sat on panels as an expert on parenting in the digital age.

I have intercepted messages between students that break my heart and hope that my children will never receive. I have fought back tears for students and parents struggling with these situations.

I have had to call parents to tell them their children were doing inappropriate things with technology and have given guidance and resources. I present to students on how to be responsible digital citizens and how their digital footprint can affect their future.

I am the person my friends call when they have a question about their children and technology. What is the right age to get a cell phone? Should I let my 7-year-old download TikTok? How do I check my kids’ browser history?

I thought I was prepared and had all the answers. I do this for a living and I have real life experience—two live kids!

My 9-year-old got a cell phone much earlier than we planned. It was a lifestyle and safety decision agonized over by my husband and I for many weeks. The phone can only text and call family and approved friend contacts and access Netflix on long car rides.

A major discussion with my 9-year-old about the appropriate use of the phone was had and a family cell phone contract was signed and posted on the refrigerator.

She mostly communicates with family about practices being over or tells me she has arrived home safely when I’m running late.

Text messages are few and far between—mostly texts between her sister, who is away at school, and funny memes from grandma. I have access to everything and check the phone daily. In our house, there is no expectation of privacy on a cell phone unless you’re old enough and have the means to pay for it yourself. My older daughter got a cell phone much later in teen life, when group texts became passe. Also, she has the type of personality where if she received a mean text, she would print it out and bring it with her the next day to confront you face to face—and you would likely hide from her. Her brain and self esteem were well developed and I had spent years telling her horror stories.

We were running out the door this Saturday to the third basketball game of the weekend when my 9-year-old’s phone dinged innocently on the counter right between us. I thought it was her sister wishing her good luck at her basketball game, but it turned out to be a text message from one of her friends that made my stomach turn.

When it came through on the screen my daughter and I saw the text at the exact same time. She looked at me and I looked at her—time seemed to freeze and I processed the body of the text a split second before she did. I panicked and grabbed the phone. I felt like we were frozen in time and I had only seconds to make sure I handled this correctly.

“Give me the phone, I want to talk to you before you read it.”

She handed it over. I read it again, in disbelief.

“Don’t delete it. Don’t respond.”

I reluctantly handed the phone back to her.

As she read the text her face dropped, but didn’t crumble. She was more taken aback that someone would send something so harsh behind the protection of a screen.

“Honey, this is not something, even if she feels this way, that is appropriate to text. This is a face to face conversation. Would she say this to your face?!”

“No.”

“This is the kind of text that would have YOUR phone taken away.”

“I know!”

The entire weekend I kept her phone in sight. I feared the notifications, the lighting up of the screen.

I wanted to pick her phone up and respond. I wanted to take a screenshot and send it to the mother—but I didn’t. Instead I told my daughter I love you. I don’t care what you did or didn’t do to receive this text but you don’t deserve it—no one does.

I trusted her not to respond, but wanted to make sure she didn’t receive anymore. I also wanted to act like we weren’t going to give this incident more attention than it deserved.  I watched her all weekend for signs of sadness and depression and made sure to spend extra time with her.

I came to realize the text was affecting me more than her. She barely touched her phone all weekend. I felt bad because I couldn’t protect her. I failed her, I gave her a phone too soon.  I can’t intercept the text and direct its horribleness at me. There is a chink in her armor. I was ashamed I had facilitated this attack by giving access.

Before she went to school on Monday I told her, “This text doesn’t define you. It does not affect your self worth or self esteem. It’s not true. This is not how we handle things and I want you to know that this is not how you will ever use your phone. You are more than your phone.”

Parenting in the digital age is hard but that doesn’t mean we should just give up and let students navigate this world alone. We don’t just give kids keys to cars and let them drive. There are road tests and student driving, unwanted parental advice and cautionary tales, seatbelts and endless parallel parking practice in an empty parking lot. Cell phones are the same thing; our children need guidance, counseling, advice, contracts, rules, and most importantly, modeling. And this is new for all of us, growing up with cellphones, we are all figuring this out together. Reach out to other parents for advice and don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

I’m hoping the other mother saw the texts her daughter sent.

I’m hoping she talked to her daughter.

I am hoping she grabbed the wheel and centered the car.

Erica Hartman lives in Morris County with her husband, two daughters, and a rescue dog. She is the Director of Technology in an NJ school district and can be found in the stands cheering on her daughters at their basketball games.

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