A recent incident involving inappropriate texts among sixth graders caused me to rethink the following question: What's the right age for a child to get her first cell phone? The answer varies from parent to parent and often hinges on how busy the family's schedule is as well as the maturity level of the child. This much is clear: The average age seems to be getting younger and younger. After giving the matter considerable thought, I have concluded that there are compelling reasons to place on permanent hold any plan that involves giving a child or even a tween her own cell phone.
It makes your kid less safe. Parents often cite safety as a major reason for wanting to give their child a cell phone. They believe that the ability to easily reach their kid -- and vice versa -- means she is somehow safer. But I submit the result is exactly the opposite. Giving a child a cell phone creates a false sense of security and that can cause parents to be less diligent about the details of their child's whereabouts. And while it's true that a cell phone makes it easy for you to reach your kid anytime, anyplace, it also makes it easy for everyone else to reach your kid, anytime, anyplace. And this easy access and overexposure can dramatically reduce your child's safety.
But behind the concern over your kid's safety lies an important question: Where is your kid going that is so dicey, anyway? Does she have an afterschool job working as an undercover agent for the DEA? If so, don't get her a cell phone, get her a new job. Seriously, if your child's daily life involves garden-variety situations like school and extracurricular activities, there are probably plenty of phones within a three-foot radius of her at any given moment. When your kid is at school, there is a phone in the school office -- and chances are there's one in every classroom she sets foot in, too. And that's on top of all the cell phones in every teacher's pocket or purse. After all, we're not talking about a one-room schoolhouse from Little House on the Prairie days. This is 2013.
When it comes to extracurriculars, if the activity in question is housed in a building (like a dance studio or a gym) that facility surely has a phone; and even if the activity takes place outside -- like on a sports field of some sort -- you can rest assured that the coach and all of the other parents have cell phones handy.
The bottom line here is whether your kid is at school or pretty much anywhere else, a cell phone riding around in her backpack or gym bag is completely superfluous. It will only serve to bring the total number of phones within arm's reach from a bazillion to a bazillion and one. Rather than giving your child a cell phone, do something that will really make a difference in terms of her safety and quality of life. Make an effort to get to know the teachers, coaches and other parents well enough to exchange contact info and even cell phone numbers with them.
It pushes socialization underground. Some parents claim their child needs a cell phone to keep up socially. While no parent likes the thought of her child being excluded, the truth is there are some things your kid is better off being left out of.
If your child doesn't have a cell phone, she'll have to keep up with her friends either by talking to them in person or by calling them from your cell phone (or, if you're really old fashioned like me, from your home phone). In other words, she'll have to do what you had to do when you were a kid. And when you stop to think about it, is that really such a bad thing?
When children have to communicate through means other than kid-specific, personally dedicated cell phone lines, the communication is likely to be more out in the open, complete with built-in fresh air and sunlight. At the risk of sounding anachronistic, I believe that childhood friendships maintained through old-fashioned approaches have a better chance of being constructive and a reduced risk of straying off course.
It makes it harder to live in the moment. Research indicates that being constantly wired-in to technology in effect rewires the human brain. It makes surface friendships easier than ever, but deeper friendships harder to come by and more difficult to maintain. And if that's the effect on adults, imagine the impact on children whose brains are still developing and who have yet to fully figure out how to have and be a friend. With messages from elsewhere constantly beckoning your child, it is difficult for her to be fully present in whatever situation she is actually in.
I don't know about you, but I don't often hear parents complain that their kids aren't social enough. I hear them complain that their kids don't have enough downtime -- or worse yet, enough time for (or interest in) family. When you give your child a cell phone you provide a significant advantage to forces that are competing against your kid and your family. It's like supplying the enemy with tactical weapons that will then be used against you. Consider yourself officially warned.
It puts your kid in adult situations. Some parents claim that because cell phones are a useful tool in a modern world, the sooner kids learn how to incorporate one into their lives, the better. My question for these parents is this: What brand of burn cream was their favorite when they were trying to teach their toddlers how to use the kitchen stove?
Burn jokes aside, you get my point: There are plenty of things that are useful in everyday life that we nonetheless protect our children from until they are much older. Cars are as ubiquitous as they are essential, but you don't see parents clamoring to put little kids in the driver's seat.
When you stop to consider all of the information that is just a click or two away with any cell phone with a browser, is it really reasonable, let alone responsible, for us to put young kids so close to so much inappropriate material and then expect them to escape harm?
We used to do a better job of ensuring that our community that was more appropriate for the children with whom we share it. We devised rating systems to help parents make informed choices about what shows their kids watched and what video games they played. It wasn't perfect, but it was something.
And while creative content was uninspired, television networks at least adhered to a minimum standard of decency when it came to the appropriateness of programming and no kid was at risk of being emotionally scarred simply by turning on the TV. Not so anymore. And if you've ever seen even a second or two of any one of Comedy Central's numerous "celebrity" roasts, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
I realize I'm not describing a very high bar here -- and that's actually my point. As low as that bar was, we can't even clear it anymore. We've gone from recognizing that we need to protect our children from adult information and situations, to handing our kids devices that easily access these things and expecting them to somehow learn to deal with it. And yes, parental control technology is available, but very few parents make even the slightest effort to enable these controls, preferring to just give lip service to the idea instead.
Last but not least, giving a child a cell phone physically puts her in an adult situation by exposing her to adult levels of radiation. In fact, last year, the American Association of Pediatrics asked the Federal Communications Commission to review the cell phone radiation standards for children. =The standards that are currently in place were developed by the FCC in 1996 and were based on exposure to adult males.
AAP President Dr. Robert Block stated that children are not simply "little adults," and when cell phones are used by children "the average RF energy deposition is two times higher in the brain and ten times higher in the bone marrow of the skull, compared with mobile phone use by adults."
If you still feel there are situations that require you to provide your child or tween with a cell phone, I have a suggestion for you: Get a low-tech cell phone that can make calls and perhaps even send and receive texts and designate it as the family loaner phone. Then, rather than giving your child her very own smart phone, let her borrow the loaner phone should a situation arise where she actually needs it. Because at the end of the day, what your kid needs is a smart parent, not a smart phone.