Rabbi Ross. My daughter is in 8th grade and I finally acquiesced and got her a cell phone. She came to me last night in tears that her entire class has a WhatsApp chat, and she is the only one not in the group since she doesn’t have a smart phone. I was shocked. I called the school and they told me that they can’t police what the girls do at home, that’s more of a parenting issue. I am so confused. Should I get her a smartphone, so she isn’t left out? Should I start calling other parents? Is it the school’s responsibility? Private – Brooklyn
You bring up an issue that is really affecting many families. Let’s take a step back and look at WhatsApp. This is an app that allows people to chat in a group, share pictures and videos, make phone calls, and more. As a Rebbe, I can understand how dangerous this app can be, even in the hands of adults. I am going to share a conversation that happened last year on a third+ grade chat. (I received this from a concerned parent.) The Yeshiva was in Brooklyn, and to keep this appropriate, we’ll call the Rebbe, Rabbi Farfel.
There were 28 people on the chat. Here’s the transcript.
Mother 1: Does anyone know the Hebrew Homework?
Mother 2: I need it also. My son forgot it again.
Mother 3: I can’t stand this homework. Too much and the boys don’t even know it.
Mother 2: You’re telling me? Let Rabbi Farfel teach this in class. Why for homework?
Mother 3: It’s because he has no control in class. My son tells me it’s always crazy in the room.
Mother 1: I heard that also. I’m very unhappy this year.
Mother 4: Does anyone have a good dietetic chicken recipe? I have a lot of guests this Shabbos.
Mother 5: I agree with all of you. We should all complain to the Yeshiva. It’s time for a new Rebbe.
Mother 2: I’m on board with that. This is ridiculous. We pay enough for tuition. Let him teach.
Mother 6: I’m in. My son spent 30 minutes on a writing assignment. Not fair to us.
Mother 7: I have a great recipe but it’s handwritten. I’ll message it to you.
Mother 8: Me too.
Mother 1: Me too for the recipe or the Rebbe?
Mother 8: Both!! 😊
Just like that, they are destroying the Rebbe. This Rebbe happens to be a very good Rebbe, and has been teaching for quite a few years. Chicken recipe notwithstanding, this conversation was Lashon Hara, and should never have happened. What really got me was the smiley face. Ha Ha! What could possibly be humorous about destroying a Rebbe’s career?
This could have been dealt with simply. One of the parents could have sent a picture of the homework. Anyone that has an issue with the work level could simply contact the Rebbe. He gave all parents an email address and a phone number at the beginning of the year. How difficult is it to send an email or make a quick call? This particular Rebbe would have responded very well, from what I’ve heard.
As a result, some Yeshivos began banning WhatsApp groups. Not only is this difficult to enforce, it’s also kind of silly. These are adults, after all. My solution as a Rebbe, was to join the group, together with the English teacher. We are the admins of the group, and respond to any pertinent questions. One Rebbe I spoke with acknowledged that it’s a great idea, but he refuses to get a smart phone. It’s a tough call.
Returning to your question, we are now at the point where having a kids’ group chat is not only acceptable, it’s the norm. Many Yeshivos ban smartphones on school grounds, but these kids have phones at home and have access to WhatsApp in the evening. Unless the Yeshivos take a stand and tell parents that kids are not allowed to use any social media at home (and then enforce this), they will continue to have these chats.
What should you do? First of all, verify that your daughter is telling the truth. Many times, kids exaggerate, and there might only be seven kids on this chat. Call up some other mothers and ask if their daughters are on this chat. If there are indeed only a few girls on the chat, you can tell your daughter that she is mistaken. “There are only a few girls on this chat, and many of the mothers told me that they won’t let their daughters join.”
If however, most, or all, of the class is on the chat, I would give in. I understand many people will disagree with this, but if you send your daughter to a school where everyone is doing something, it’s unfair to expect her to be the odd one out. There are many ways to secure a smartphone. You can use restrictions, use a parental control app (I like Qustodio), or bring it to a place where they pretty much give your smartphone a lobotomy.
You need to explain to your children that having a smartphone requires responsibility and maturity. Teach them about online bullying, dangerous links, pop ups, and phishing. If you don’t understand these terms, you should have someone teach all of you together. Make sure your children know to tell you if there is something questionable on the chat, or even if they feel that someone else is being insulted.
Another smart idea which pertains to any kind of phone, is to have your children charge their phones in a central location in the house, and not in their bedrooms. Depending on the age, it would even be a good idea to tell them what time you want their phones away. You can click here to read the complete article regarding electronics.
Lastly, check the chat yourself every couple of days. Let your children know that it’s not because you don’t trust them, but rather to make sure that it’s appropriate. Don’t just read a few lines. Scroll all the way up and check out the conversations. If there are one or two kids that are consistently being inappropriate, you should be a good friend and notify that mother.
I want to reiterate that the decision to get your child a smartphone should not be taken lightly. It’s a huge responsibility for your child and for you. You and your husband should discuss all options and make an informed decision. You should certainly involve the principal of the school, and explain that you have no choice since all the other kids are on a chat.
Wishing you a warm Shabbos.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.