Tween Sleepovers and Screens

The Unforeseen Dilemma!

Recently we hosted a sleepover for my daughter’s 11th birthday. I knew it was going to be loud. I knew it was going to be late. However, I didn’t realise it was going to be so fraught with parenting quandaries and ambiguity about what to do and where to draw the line when it comes to screens.

The girls arrived full of excitement and anticipation. And their backpacks full of devices.

They had been talking about the sleepover at school in the weeks leading up to it and all knew the plans my daughter had intricately created. She had a balloon for each hour of the party and inside them was a note with the next activity, including craft, swimming, jumping on the trampoline, make-overs, dinner, a movie, cake and sleepover games. (There was a balloon for 9pm which contained the slip saying, “Sleep”, though that balloon was never popped!)

The girls got on beautifully, no arguing or complaining, loving every minute of their time together. This is a moment of both pride and relief which mums feel when they know with certainty that their child has a wonderful group of friends, that they have another place besides home where they belong and are accepted for who they are.

So, what could possibly be the dilemma in all this fun, friendship and frivolity? Devices! All in all, we survived the sleepover relatively unscathed by device dramas, but it gave me a great deal of fodder for contemplation. It's not that I'm ignorant about social media and screens, however my daughter doesn’t have a mobile phone yet so I was caught off guard by the other girls bringing phones, laptops and ipads to a sleepover (maybe I’m behind the times but we just used to play truth or dare, chinwag ‘til late and then swim in our pyjamas in the wee hours of the morning. If weren't enjoying ourselves we had to suck it up or ask to use the host's phone). Needless to say, I felt uncertain about how to manage potential device issues, which is what started me thinking….

If one child who brings a device to the sleepover, shows another child something inappropriate, let’s say a naked man or worse still a violent sex video, (and imagine if the child who is shown this video has parents who are strict about what their children watch and hadn’t allowed their child to bring a device to the party), who is responsible? Is it me as the supervising parent or is it the parent of the child who was allowed to bring the device? Is it the direct responsibility of the underage child who actually found and shared the inappropriate image in the first place? If so, what are the legal ramifications and just as importantly, what are the social and ethical repercussions?

If it is me who is responsible as the supervising parent, then how much leeway do I have to set ground rules about devices? Do I get to monitor their screen use as I would my own children’s? Am I allowed to insist that at a set time all devices be put on the kitchen counter and are only used with permission? Or is that too much like confiscating them? Do I have a legal or moral obligation to do so?

While contemplating all this, there was another screen issue I faced. I wouldn’t ordinarily listen in, however when I heard my daughter and her friends speaking in hushed tones in the bathroom whilst doing make-up, it piqued my interest. Call it mother’s intuition but it sounded somehow different. Turns out they were debating over what to text a friend who wasn’t invited to the party. My first instinct was, “How does she even know you’re having a party?” and my second thought was, “And why on earth are you texting her during the party?” Of course, the girls talk at school and it’s not surprising that the uninvited guest knew there was a sleepover going on, but why did the girls at our place feel the need to keep replying to messages from the one who was not present? What’s the etiquette? Yes, if someone messages you, it seems polite to message them back. But do you need to keep messaging them? Is it kinder to spare them the details (and possibly their hurt feelings) or give them the glorious minutiae in photo and video form, in which case why didn’t we just invite them in the first place?

Trying to intervene as little as possible I couldn’t help myself when one of the girls exclaimed, “She just won’t stop messaging us!” The solution seems so simple and so obvious, just ignore her, but I suppose at 11 years old these are some of the new online social dilemmas to be navigated.

A continuation of this was later in the afternoon when the girls decided to make a fake video to send to the same girl. I wasn’t convinced that it was an attempt to include her. A dubious attempt at best. In fact, I felt sorry for her. At this point I pulled my daughter aside to reiterate conversations we’ve had previously about the permanency of imagery sent online, a reminder of who might see it and how it may be misconstrued. More importantly though, I asked her how she would feel if it was her receiving a video of friends having fun at a sleepover she hadn’t been invited to. I gave her the option of handling the situation with her friends herself or if she preferred, I was happy to step in and help her deal with it if she felt it was beyond her. Whilst I was firm, I also recognise that they are only 11 and are all still learning. Yet that is the very reason I believe that they need guidance and coaching.

Later in the evening as they were settling into their beds (notice I didn’t say settling in to sleep!), after they’d watched a movie and a dance show on YouTube, I suggested that it was time for devices to be put to bed too. From another room I smiled as I listened to them (I promise I’m not in the habit of eavesdropping, but in my defence it’s a long time since I was 11 and I’m curious what 11 year olds talk about these days!). They were playing “Would you rather?” As in, “Would You rather let a stranger lick your foot or you lick your best friend’s elbow?” or “Would you rather eat soup with a knife or eat steak with a spoon?”. I was admiring how creative their questions were and how quickly they were coming up with them, almost as if…. They. Were. Reading. Them! And that’s when I cottoned on to the source of their brilliance. Google!

This is not so much a dilemma as a fact of life with the current generation of tweens. It does however lead us into the territory of the questionable impact screens are having on creativity and focus; a topic probably best left for another time and another blog.

The next morning as we farewelled some very tired but happy party goers with armfuls of craft and crumbled clothes, I felt relief beneath my smile. In future, to avoid some of the turmoil I felt and clear up the uncertainty surrounding devices at playdates and sleepovers, I plan to be more proactive and up front with the parents of any junior guests in our home. I will have more open discussions with the parents of my daughter’s friends to clarify their expectations around screen use and ensure that I clearly articulate my own boundaries to avoid any subsequent confusion. I still have many questions to ponder regarding screen etiquette.

For now though, I’m grateful that we survived my daughter’s 11th birthday sleepover and that her next birthday is 12 months away. A sleepover for which I will be far better prepared.

Although she doesn't specifically discuss this particular dilemma, Dr Christine Carter, addresses many device and social media related issues in her book The New Adolescence It is well worth a read for some well researched discussion on the impacts of screens on our teens, as well as general parenting ideas on how to counter these effects and navigate this tricky territory with our adolescents.

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