Kids and Cell Phones: Issues to Consider

Q) Dear Mom:

Can I have a cell phone? All my friends have one…We promise to be responsible!

Love, your daughters

A)

When my daughters both entered middle school, I quickly lost count how many times my husband and I were asked that question. It seemed to escalate quickly with each passing month! In the mind of a 12 year old, this was a very urgent and pressing matter – an actual tween crisis.

Our oldest daughter took an interesting approach in convincing us about her “need” for the cell phone. In addition to rattling off the typical reasons (safety, need, communication), she had her 8 1/2 year old sister poll her friends who had older siblings in middle school.  The results of this very unscientific poll were intriguing. Indeed, the vast majority of 6th graders and most of the 7th graders polled had a cell phone. In fact, a good amount of 5th graders also had cell phones.

Too much, too young? Read on.

I have to admit, this is not an issue where one answer fits every child and every family. So, you have to go into any “poll” with that mind set. But, there are some considerations that are worth noting that do come into play even for kids as young as 5th and 6th grade which I would not have been able to predict until my kids were at that age.

For example, I didn’t realize how unavailable true phones are in schools in general. If your child needs to reach you after school, grown ups disperse quickly in offices and without a cell phone, or a friend’s cell phone, our kids would have been unable to reach us.

Neighbors are not around after school for the walk home as they were when we were kids. So, if your kids is  a walker, that is another safety consideration.

Finally, pay phones simply do not exist. This is important for all our kids. If an emergency pops up and our kids are somewhere as a group or alone, a cell phone may be their only way to call for a ride or to call 911.

Where do experts stand on this issue? As I just mentioned, there truly is no agreed upon age for when a child is “old enough”. You have to consider your family’s life and your child’s after school life. That said, middle school, between 12-14, does seem to be when most kids get that first cell phone.

After talking to many friends, parents and colleagues, I’ve compiled a list of questions that you can run through with your family to help sort out if a cell phone is a reasonable addition to your child’s pocket:

  1. Is your tween/teen home after school alone?
  2. Does your tween/teen walk home from school alone or with friends?
  3. Does your tween/teen often spend time away from home at overnight camp or at friends’ houses?
  4. Does your tween/teen participate in activities where there is no handy phone  to call you in a pinch?
  5. Is your teen/tween starting to attend parties, either at school or at friends’ houses?
  6. Does your teen have a driver’s license or is starting to be in a car with older teenaged licensed-drivers?
  7. Does your teen/tween ride on moving vehicles away from home, such as bikes, roller blades or skateboards?
  8. Is your tween/teen starting to walk to the local pizza shop or store with friends to grab a snack?
  9. Is your teen/tween starting to baby-sit?
  10. Does your teen have a job?

Finally, once you make the decision to get a cell phone, that doesn’t end the story but actually begin it. Make sure you have a cell phone plan in place so your child understand the rules for proper use. Think about it – the phone costs money. How will your teen/tween contribute to the phone and the bills? What about abuse of the phone should your child make calls that are not urgent or emergent or necessary? What will the consequences be when that occurs (and you know it will!)? Make sure you spell that out clearly in a family meeting.

I’d suggest a payment plan of sorts and a contract that both you and your tween/teen sign. Since kids don’t have ways to earn money, perhaps have a list of chores your kids can do at home to contribute to the cell phone until they are old enough to babysit. It’s the principle you are emphasizing initially.

And, avoid phones with too many bells and whistles – they just tempt fate and drive up monthly costs.  Texting is very useful and if you can get a plan with a reasonable text plan, I think you’ll find it a great way to stay in touch with your family quickly but your kids don’t need internet access – not only is that pricey but it is hard to control on a cell phone.

By the way, you’ll notice that I refer to tweens and teens .  In my wildest dream, I really can’t come up with a reason why an elementary school child would need a cell phone. If you do, please let me know – really.  This is un-chartered territory so us parents need to learn from each other, and stick together!

(Originally posted June 2006; Updated October 2010)