5 Things I Learned From 5 Days in a 5th Grade Group Chat

Emily Cherkin
5 min readFeb 8, 2023

And Why I Remain Convinced 11-Year-Olds Should Not Have Smartphones

I set my phone aside for 30 minutes to focus on another task. When I returned, I had 247 messages waiting for me.

What happened? I had joined a 5th grade group chat.

Not long ago, my daughter burst into the door after school and wailed: “Mom, how am I supposed to text my friends if I don’t have a phone!?” She had a point: even with a landline telephone and her own number, kids just don’t call each other anymore. They text.

I wanted her to have access to her friends. I didn’t want her to feel left out of social gatherings. I’d heard this same complaint from lots of parents. But I also wasn’t about to hand her a personal smartphone.

It’s true that 53% of 11-year-olds in the U.S. have their own smartphones (and that was in 2019– I’m sure it’s higher now).

So our temporary solution has been to allow my daughter to give her friends my phone number so she can text with them. It’s been an enlightening experience for both of us, especially when she got added to The 5th Grade Group Chat.

With over 15 kids in the group, she was (we were) swept into the chaos of a group chat run by children, and after just five days, we were both convinced that 11-year-olds should not be left to personal devices.

Just a sample of some of the texts from the 5th grade group chat

5 things I learned:

  1. Heavy on Jargon, Low on Substance: Most of the text messages sent were abbreviations (“idc,” “idk,” “lol,” “gtg,” etc.) or emojis, gifs, pictures of their pets, conversations about bubble tea, television shows, siblings, and school. In real life, kids talk to each other in full sentences and have conversations with a handful of people at once, not the entire 5th grade. It’s not a “cute” competition sent over 15 (or 45) texts.
  2. Laying the Groundwork for Cruelty: As a former middle school teacher, I could immediately pick out which students in the group chat had social power and witnessed how they wielded it by name-calling (“bitch,” “asshole,” etc.), or telling other kids in the thread to “shut up” or mocking their appearance. No one pushed back on the cruelty. It’s much, much easier to be cruel on a device than it is in person. And it is very scary to stand up to that cruelty.
  3. Time Consuming and Hugely Distracting: The sheer volume of messages was staggering: in that one 30-minute period, we got 247 messages. Over a weekend, we received 803 text messages. At 44 years old, I was distracted. I can only imagine how distracting it was for 11-year-olds– especially if they were attempting to do homework! Humans, especially children, were not meant to consume so much information in such a short period of time. Children lack the developmental skills to respond thoughtfully, not just react. The speed of a group chat means constantly reacting to what someone else is writing (often before they finish writing it).
  4. High Potential for Misunderstanding: 11-year-olds have limited life experience and it shows. There was so much confusion and misunderstanding in the group chat. A lack of punctuation and “u” (meaning “you”) autocorrecting to “I” was very misleading. Some of the kids tried to point this out– “things get misinterpreted in texts” but, developmentally, 11-year-olds are not ready for this burden. I had trouble following along at times and could see how easily it was to conclude something in error because of a misunderstanding or typo.
  5. Bad Habits Start Young: At one point, one of the students with high social power took a screenshot of a private text thread about one student having a crush on another, and posted it to the group chat, with the obvious intention of embarrassing the people involved. Screenshotting is rampant and can be weaponized to humiliate. In the real world, 5th graders might whisper in class or even pass handwritten notes, but to take a screenshot and text it to a group of people brings permanence to impulsivity in a way that could really come back to bite them later on.
The struggle is real

5 Tips For Parents:

  1. Don’t give 11-year-olds their own smartphones or smartwatches. Even iPads with iMessages should be shared with an adult. Even locked down devices are distracting.
  2. Share your own number with your 11-year-old. Is it annoying? Yes. Is it informative? Yes. Does it give you plenty of opportunities to teach along the way? Yes.
  3. Assume 11-year-olds are learning how to “self-regulate,” but remember they have a long way to go and need to make mistakes to learn. Children’s brains are not adult brains. There is a reason the driving age is 16 and not 11. We don’t hand 11-year-olds car keys and say “Be safe.”
  4. Be your child’s coach, not their best friend. Of course they want a phone “because everyone else has one.” Of course we want our kids to like us. But that doesn’t mean tweens are ready or that they should have access to personal smart devices. If you can share a phone number with them, you can start teaching them about texting etiquette and the permanence of screenshotting.
  5. Let the kids come to the conclusions you want them to come to (i.e. don’t do it for them). After 5 days in the group chat, even my daughter had had enough. “This is awful. I don’t want to be on this anymore,” she said, and removed herself from the chat.

Our intentions are good. We want our kids to be included, show kindness, and not miss out on important social things.

But handing tweens personal devices actually increases FOMO (fear of missing out), exacerbates cruelty, and requires a lot of time and emotional energy to keep up.

No parent has ever told me, “I wish I had given my kid a phone sooner.” Not a single parent.

Let’s give our kids a little more time being children. Delay the smartwatch or smartphone.

Books: algorithm-free entertainment

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Emily Cherkin

Emily is a speaker, writer, consultant, and parent of two. A former middle school teacher, she is now the founder and owner of The Screentime Consultant.