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Mommy, Can I Have A Cell Phone...?

Be prepared... the question is coming sooner than you think!


By Terri Hunter-Davis

Apparently I am a bad mother. My 10-year-old daughter does not have her own cell phone. Never mind that she doesn't travel solo and has not been anywhere for more than five minutes without access to someone else's phone. Never mind that her friends often call our house (interestingly, she rarely makes calls on her own). Poor, deprived tween — she needs a cell phone and it's all my fault!

What, you don't think I'm so bad? Thanks, I needed to hear that.

Truth is, our decision to firmly say "not yet" is not unusual. But neither is it necessarily right, at least not for every family. The choice to allow — or not allow — a pre-teen to have his or her own cell phone is an individual one. It has much to do with responsibility, maturity, need and circumstances.

When? When? When?
These days, it's not uncommon for 9- and 10-year-olds to start clamoring for their own phone. The Center on Media and Child Health reports that 54 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds will have their "own" cell phone within the next three years.

But children are individuals: one sibling may desperately want one; another sibling may not care a whit. Chances are, your child started forming phone habits much earlier, starting with weekly babbling to Grandma. You'll probably have a good idea if your child will want a cell phone long before she or he asks for one. Start thinking of your answers ahead of time, and you'll have a much easier time when the topic finally comes up!

Need vs. want
Your definition of "need" will almost certainly differ from your child's. You may think your child needs a cell phone to let you know she arrived safely at her swim lesson. She may think she needs the phone to talk to her friend after that swim lesson. And there's always the "need" that arises when a classmate, neighbor or teammate has one, too.

In the eyes of many parents, the desire for a cell phone is little more than the junior version of keeping up with the Joneses. Using my daughter's social circle as an example, out of about 40 friends and acquaintances (all in the 9- to 12-year-old age bracket), there are perhaps four or five who have cell phones. The strident pleas for a phone increase exponentially when she's around the kids who have them. Most of her friends' parents agree that there's usually not much need for a 10-year-old to have one. (Though the ones who want to ban phones (and boys!) till their daughters reach, say 30, may have a tough road ahead!)

However, the 8-12 age bracket is a time when many children learn – and earn – more independence. Some older ones are allowed to take public transit to or from school (especially middle schoolers, who may have to travel some distance); many are allowed to venture a few blocks to go to the store or library. Some might go from school to a nearby after-school class; others might carpool with friends to a team practice. Some parents feel more comfortable if their child can contact them with ease. I grew up with the mantra, "Call me when you get there!" It's much harder to find a pay phone these days, so a cell phone could be considered a legitimate need.

Tweens who may have two "homes" — divorced parents with joint custody or children who spend significant time with grandparents are a couple of common examples — might benefit from having just one contact number. And some divorced parents find it simpler to contact their children via cell when they're in the other parent's custody.

Does a child "need" to chat on the phone? Parents have debated this for generations, since the days of an "extension" or a second phone line in an older child's room. Sometimes eliminating fights over a single land line is worth the effort of getting a second cell phone, and instructing a child how to use it responsibly.

Use it, don't lose it
One common fear many parents share is that Junior or Princess will lose the phone. Certainly a lost cell means trouble — sometimes expensive trouble, if it falls into the wrong hands. But parents would be wise to consider how careful their child is with other important things. Do glasses, keys, sweaters and backpacks go missing? If consistently not, then your child probably exercises a certain amount of care with belongings, and a phone is likely to be no exception. If consistently yes … well, you can figure that one out. If your child really needs a phone but you have a legitimate fear it will disappear, you'll need to take other measures — keeping it strapped to a backpack, perhaps — and start working on those personal responsibility issues!

Another option is to consider a pre-paid phone — at least if it's lost, you've limited the financial damage. Family-friendly providers include Kajeet and Firefly; many major providers also feature pre-paid plans.

Speaking of limits
You'll need to set them. You would with a land line; don't slack off because your own phone time isn't compromised. The easiest limits are the strictest: call when you get to a destination, as instructed; call if there's an emergency. (If you spell out these limits before getting the phone, you might quash the desire to have one altogether!)

Eventually your child will want regular chatting. And ringtones. And texting. And games. And Web browsing. It's a slippery slope. Don't take the fall: even mature tweens can be sorely tempted by having the Web right in their backpack or back pocket. Major plans, such as AT&T, offer services that restrict what your tween can do on a cell phone, such as limiting text messages, blocking numbers or filtering content.

If you wouldn't allow land-line calls after a certain time, you'll need to make your child understand that limit applies to cell phone calls too. Be vigilant that your youngster isn't texting or talking under the covers when she or he should be doing homework or sleeping. Make sure that it stays in the kitchen or family room overnight when it's on charge. Remember too, that cell phones can be a serious distraction at school. Generally they are not allowed to be on (even on vibrate) during school hours, and often will be confiscated if found in use.

It's up to you
When all is said and done, only you can decide if your child is ready and in need of a cell phone. There's no one answer. But one thing is certain: when you're both ready, there will be plenty of talk — and not on the phone — to make sure your child's phone use is a positive rite of passage!


Terri Hunter-Davis is a veteran writer, editor and designer in both print and online media. Her areas of expertise include family, lifestyle and shelter topics. Terri lives in San Francisco with her husband and increasingly tech-savvy 6- and 10-year-old daughters.



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