At a recent school fair – you know, the type with a moon bounce, funnel cakes, and kids running around tipsy with glee to be off-leash for a few hours — my nine-year-old daughter strutted around with a puzzling pink cell phone sticking out of her front pocket.
The phone looked familiar, I realized, because it was my old cell, dead for at least three years. She’d snitched it from my messy office desk drawer. When I asked her why she was walking around with a decrepit, useless phone, she gave me a crazed look. “Duh, Mom. So people think it’s mine.”
Over the past decade, cell phones have become necessities for most adults in the United States, priceless communication and convenience tools. We panic if we lose them or leave them at home for even a few hours. I can’t imagine a day in my life without mine. But I hadn’t realized that a kid’s first cell phone has become a right of passage as critical as a bat mitzvah, a driver’s license or a diploma.
These days, instead of debating when to buy a child’s first bike, or let them walk to school alone, many parents (and their children) debate over how young is too young to buy a child their own cell phone.
Like so much of parenting decisions, there is no right answer. Each kid and every family’s needs are distinct.
I know a child in first grade who has her own cell phone. She’s an only child with parents who work split shifts, and she is often at after school programs, and at friends’ and relatives’ homes overnight. Her parents need her to have a phone so they can kiss her goodnight and arrange complex logistics. But since this girl has no friends with cell phones, its usage is limited to her parents and caregivers. At least until a quorum of her friends catch up and get their own phones. At the other end of the spectrum, I know a family of three young girls so independent they take the subway alone…but they are not allowed a dedicated cell phone until ninth grade.
My oldest child got a phone when he was in fourth grade and started spending evening hours in basketball gyms without us. His cell phone solved a safety concern. What if practice ended early? We didn’t want him alone, 45 minutes from home, stranded in an empty elementary school. And indeed, cell phone providers like Verizon and Motorola make “baby” cell phones specifically for safety and parental communication. The phones are limited to a few emergency numbers and are designed for young children to use easily and safely.
But what makes sense for older kids who beg for a cell for the same reasons we adults consider phones indispensible — to manage their lives and communicate with their friends? In general, I don’t see many kids younger than eleven with cell phones. Most kids in 7th and 8th grades (ages 12 to 14) seem to have them. The family that forbids cell phones until ninth grade is my personal data outlier.
Getting your first cell phone has become a milestone in our kids’ lives. We parents would be wise to understand why this milestone matters so much, to respect it as a signpost, and to make this a positive rite of passage, not something to ridicule or dismiss as a symptom of how pseudo-modern or spoiled this generation has become.
Instead of screaming “I DIDN’T GET A CELL PHONE UNTIL I WAS 32!” maybe try, “You’re so responsible now, we think you will be ready to handle this powerful communication tool. Here are the rules. We expect you to use this wisely.”
And don’t forget some practical advice: I cannot stress how critical it is for parents of teenagers to sign up for unlimited texting plans. Kids can easily send and receive over 300 texts a day – that can quickly run to 10,000 per month. Don’t worry about cell phones giving your kid brain cancer – they hardly ever use the phone to actually talk. Texting is the new drug of choice.
Sit down and talk to your kids about the costs of your plan, so they know in advance how to use the phone wisely and what the penalties will be. Set rules about bringing the cell to the dinner table, to bed, to school, to grandma’s. Set the rule early that your kids MUST answer when you call or text – otherwise the phone is useless to you as a parent.
Make sure you talk about the dangers of sexting. My advice is to say frankly to your children “The rule in this family is that you are not allowed, ever, under any circumstances, to text or email a naked picture of any part of yourself or anyone else, or you will be kicked out of this family.”
If you don’t want to be so harsh, at least explain that police consider sexting child pornography, that paying money to view a sext is a felony, and that you’d be happy to visit them on their birthday in juvie if they get caught.
Technology is a prominent influence in our children’s daily lives – and their futures long after we are as old and useless as the phone my daughter took from my drawer. A child’s first cell phone is their point of entry into a world of personalized, powerful technology tools.
Underneath my nine-year-old’s desire for status lies the normal yearning to grow up, to become an adult in the eyes of the world. Funny but true that a pink four-ounce rectangle of metal and buttons is her passage into a future without me as her protector, a world of technology I can’t even begin to envision.