November 2012
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Before You Buy Your Tween a Cell Phone …

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My cell phone buzzes. I pick it up and scroll down to see three little words that my son has texted to me, “Pick me up.” I type back, “What happened to ‘please’?” He replies with a smart-alecky, “Please Dear Mother, can you pick me up at the library where I have been doing schoolwork?” I respond, “Very funny. I am on my way.” To which he answers, “OK, text me when u get here.” And so it goes … just another example of my boy being a normal middle school kid and our new communication style.

But is it really normal for an 11-year-old to have a cell phone? Do all kids really have one by now? What is the right age to allow your child to have a phone? With cell phones at the top of almost every tween’s holiday wish list these are questions you may be pondering. Before you put a shiny bow on a smart phone there are a few things you should consider.

But Everyone Has One!

Your 9-year-old has been whining about how everyone, except her, has a phone. Before you snap back with the “when I was your age” speech you may want to know that your daughter is stating the facts. According to a new survey conducted by ORC International for the National Consumers League (NCL), the nation’s oldest consumer organization, nearly six out of 10 (56 percent) parents of tweens (children ages 8-12) have provided their children with cell phones.

“Before the training wheels are coming off their bikes, many children are getting their first cell phones,” says John Breyault, NCL vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud. Jess Wilson, the mommy blogger behind the hugely popular a diary of a mom blog, was able to hold out for a little while at least. “Our daughter started asking for a phone in first grade! Nearly all of her peers had them by third or fourth and there wasn’t a kid left without one by fifth (except her). We caved when she entered middle school. Since she would be more independent, it seemed like a good idea for safety or at least that’s how we rationalized it,” says Wilson. “Truthfully, my motivating factor was that it was becoming a stigmatizing thing. Much of the culture of tweendom revolves around this method of connection,” she adds.

Location, Location

There is a very good reason why so many parents are buying their children phones. Cell phones are convenient, time saving and allow parents to stay in touch with their children at almost all times. Kids can let parents know if soccer practice ends early or when they have arrived home from school. It works the other way too with parents being able to let their children know if they are running late or where the child should meet them. The extra sense of security and safety that a cell phone can provide is the number one deciding factor for most parents considering getting their younger children a cell phone.

At What Age?

So, parents may understand that cell phones are a tween status symbol and most want their child to fit in. They also appreciate the safety aspect a cell phone can provide. Yet many parents still wrestle with the idea because they know that giving their child a smart phone (the preferred choice over the lowly plain cell phone) is like putting a small computer in their hands. Children can download content from the Internet and create text, images and videos that can easily be shared.


Is your child ready for that responsibility? Is your child’s computer know-how greater than their ability to use it wisely? Will they follow the rules when it comes to minutes used or downloading apps? Rather than a child’s chronological age, these are the questions that parents ought to consider when deciding if their child is really ready for a smart phone. A responsible 8-year-old may be more ready for phone ownership than a 12-year-old whose only reason for wanting a phone is to look cool in school.

Since so many parents are willing to pay for the peace of mind that comes with the cell phone, wireless companies are making a pretty penny on them. Once you stray away from your plan you can be hit with extra charges for going over your minutes, sending text messages or accessing the Internet. Many parents have complained at the end of the month when they receive their bill filled with charges for downloaded ringtones and games. Even the free games can end up costing if a child accidently clicks on an ad while playing the freebie.

Cell phones can also offer opportunities for undesirable behavior. A tech savvy kid could easily send a text with the answer to test question number four without the teacher ever knowing.

Even scarier is the increase of bullying and harassment among the tween crowd. Karen Williams and her then 10-year-old son learned just how serious this could be. “I got a phone call from our county detective. Apparently my son had been calling an elderly woman from the school bus on the way to and from school each and every day for a month! She had accidentally called his number, so he had it saved. The kids on the bus, “his friends,” coaxed him to continue calling her,” she says. “What he thought was a funny prank turned out to be a felony! It was a horrible experience! I can tell you he was definitely not ready for a cell phone at that age. I tell parents to be very careful!”

Some experts are wary of the escalating use of technology in our lives and how it impacts our basic sense of human connection. Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Initiative on Technology and Self, has written widely on the subject of technology and its effect on our lives. Her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011) cautions that many young adults who become dependant on technology to communicate in their formative years have lost the ability to communicate with ease in person. Many youngsters consider that texting someone is equal to a conversation while their elders might not agree. And other experts contend providing early digital connection from parent to child only fortifies the symbolical umbilical cord leading to a generation of children who delay independence and problem solving. The overall caution is that children should not rely on digital media as their primary mode of communication.

Parental Controls

Perhaps you have weighed the pros and cons and have decided that your child is ready for a phone. You trust he’ll follow the rules, but you still might want to consider a few parental controls. Just like the computer in your home, you can install parental control features on a phone that can regulate usage or even act as a GPS. Before purchasing any extra plan, software or app check the setting function of the phone itself to see what restriction features are already there.

Of course the best parental control is talking to your child and agreeing on the terms of the cell phone before you hand it over. Make sure to review all aspects of usage including numbers of calls, texts, Internet privileges and the use of games. Make it clear that misuse of the phone will not be tolerated.

The bottom line is that there is no right age to give your child a phone. Times may have changed and technology right along with it, but parenting hasn’t. It is still OK to say, “No, not yet!”

Sharon Fuentes is a frequent contributor to Westchester Family and mother of a son who has a cell phone.

Put It in Writing

Many parents ask their child to sign a contract, a written agreement of phone usage rules. The following points, courtesy of Jess Wilson of a diary of a mom, are an excellent example of the material your contract should include. Don’t just hand a list of rules to your child. Sit and discuss each point and why it is important. Don’t assume that your child will automatically understand how important these rules can be. After all, we are all new to technology and the ramifications of its misuse.

• I will not write or send anything to anyone that I would not want to see printed on the front page of a newspaper.

• I will not write or send anything to anyone that I wouldn’t show or say to his face.

• I will never send or take a picture that I would not want my grandparents to see.

• I will never tell anyone online my full name, age or address or other identifying information, for example the name of my school or sports team.

• I will never respond to an email or text in anger. I will stop and think before responding to anything. I will remember that responses do not have to be immediate.

• I will never engage in online or text conversations with anyone I do not already know in real life. And I will never, ever agree to meet anyone I do not already know.

Pursuant to my strict adherence to rules above, if I maintain my phone responsibly (i.e. know where it is at all times and do not go over my allotted minutes, etc.) and bring it to mom and dad every night (as per our agreement) so that it will not be with me in my room behind closed doors, mom and dad will pay the monthly bill, allowing it to be more than a cool looking paper weight.


Updated 4:26 pm, July 9, 2018
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