“I want a cell phone,” announced my nine-year-old daughter from the back seat of the car. I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
“Why in the world would you need a cell phone,” I asked.
“Because they’re cool,” she said.
“A girl in my class has one,” remarked her 11-year-old brother.
I wondered—could it be true? Was I really that out of touch with reality? Some quick research online revealed I was.
Several companies, including Firefly Mobile, Enfora, and Wherify, are already marketing cell phones for “tweens” (ages 9-12) and younger, promoting their new “kid-friendly” designs. The phones are promoted as ways for on-the-go families to keep in touch.
Still, the thought of a cell phone in the hands of my third grader, or even my fifth grader, astounded me. I recalled a friend whose teenage daughter ran up a massive cell phone bill that took months to pay off. Why did my son or daughter need a cell phone anyway?
Need Versus Want
That’s just what parents should ask themselves before considering buying a cell phone for their child, said child psychologist Robin Gurwitch, PhD of OU Physicians Child Study Center.
“Parents really need to consider the purpose for their child having a cell phone,” she said. “It should not be just because everyone else has one. For younger children, if they spend part of the time with one parent and part of the time with the other and have a need to check in, a cell phone might make sense.”
If parents are taking children of middle school age to the mall and dropping them off, Gurwitch added, they might also want their children to have a cell phone to check in. However, loaning them mom or dad’s phone might be sufficient for that purpose.
As children get older, there will likely be an increasing number of good reasons to consider giving them a cell phone. For instance, a cell phone can be an important tool in case of an automotive emergency. It can be useful when teens are out and parents need to speak to them or when they need to contact their parents—especially in situations where they might be uncomfortable with what is going on around them.
Gurwitch pointed out parents should also consider whether a child is responsible enough to have a cell phone of his or her own. “If you give a cell phone to a younger child, you need to expect to replace a lost or broken phone at some point,” she said, adding children need to understand that cell phones come with responsibility and rules.
“Parents need to discuss acceptable uses cell phone usage. Don’t expect them to get a cell phone and never call friends. That is not realistic. However, you can set limits on how much time they spend talking to or text messaging friends.”
Gurwitch said parents should let children know they will be checking on them and then follow-through. “Look at cell phone bills and text messaging. Go over it with them,” she explained. “Let them know if they run up a big cell phone bill, they will be responsible for paying it and hold them to it.”
Manufacturers point out a cell phone could help a child in an emergency. Some actually include GPS (global positioning system) to allow parents to track their child’s whereabouts.
Child advocacy groups, though, express concerns about children’s safety, privacy, education, and even health, pointing to radiation exposure as another possible concern. The smaller the phone, the more power it must transmit; and the more power, the more radiation exposure. Some experts suggest headsets as a safety precaution because they create distance between the transmitting phone and the head.
Gurwitch warned it is important to discuss potential dangers with children. “Parents need to tell their kids, ‘You may receive texts or pictures on your cell phone that might be inappropriate and it may not be your fault, but you need to let me know so I can make sure we aren’t charged and that I can trust you to tell me when something is not right.
“No child is 100 percent perfect. Setting up rules and consequences ahead of time can save you a lot of headaches.”
Suggested Cell Phone Rules for Teens & Tweens
- No cell phone calls during class
- No cell phone use while driving
- No text messaging in class
- No sharing minutes with friends
- No responding to calls/text messages from strangers
- Abide by monthly minute limits (set by parents)
Theresa Green is the mother of two children and president of Evergreen Productions, Inc. An award-winning reporter and former news anchor, she has reported on health, education, and parenting issues in Oklahoma City, Seattle, and Detroit.