At what age should a child get a cellphone? Experts say that because children mature at varying rates and handle responsibility differently, there shouldn’t be a set age. Yet it is surprising there are some second and third graders getting Smartphones, and, although it is not yet the norm, there is a definite trend of parents equipping their wee counterparts with the latest of everything. Child-rearing gurus we spoke with say that there are important steps a parent can take to make sure their child is ready to handle the responsibility of having a cellphone of their own.
“Parents are providing kids with more and more privileges and possessions at younger and younger ages,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Osit. Most kids who are now in their late 20s received their cellphones when they started driving or went to college; my 21 year old got his at the end of eighth grade, and my 18-year-old daughter had one in sixth. A local PTA president tells me that now, “the last holdouts receive their phones by sixth grade.”
Osit calls it “social and acquisition acceleration” and tells me “many kids are not ready for the privilege.” He is concerned that a child who receives a privilege too early will be making increasingly grandiose demands as he gets older.
Early acquiescence to inappropriate demands can set the tone for future entitlement issues. In his book, “Generation Text — Raising Well Adjusted Kids In An Age of Instant Everything,” Osit addresses concerns over immediate gratification, which results in a failure to develop necessary coping mechanisms in adulthood.
Several parents I spoke with were apprehensive that their children would feel left out without a cellphone. Osit agrees with this concern over social marginalization — within limits. He explains, “If you don’t provide your 15 year old with a texting plan, he will be out of the loop when it comes to maintaining peer relationships and making plans to get together.”
Is there a need?
Lori Hiller, a school social worker in Brooklyn, believes that kids should get cellphones when they start to travel alone, which can be as young as fourth grade, but that children who are constantly chaperoned do not need them. She cautions that younger children do not need BlackBerries or iPhones, but that parents might want their children to have texting ability, since texts can often be easier to receive than calls.
Cellphones are also a convenience for the parents, so they can call kids to come outside for pick-up, stay connected with their tweens elsewhere in the mall, or text kids behind closed doors about dinner. (Yes, I do that.)
Lenore Skenazy, a Queens mom and syndicated columnist, explained to me that her kids wanted cellphones to arrange meetings with their friends in the park. Landlines are insufficient for most kids, because they keep their friends’ contact numbers in their cellphones.
Most parents seem to feel that a cellphone is helpful, so they can keep tabs on their children or be reached in an emergency. Others consider a cellphone a safety device, because they know their children can deter a possible abductor by taking a photo.
Still, “[kids] want it for the games,” one mother told me. And, cellphone society beckons to them constantly.
“Cellphones are so embedded in our culture that they are like a third appendage for kids. It is the only world they know,” says Osit.
Well before they get their own phones, young children can recite texting acronyms, mimicking their favorite TV characters.
Kids notice that adults are “cell addicted,” as Skenazy says, and they want to be part of the conversation, literally and figuratively. Moreover, most of us have witnessed parents handing their own cellphones to their infants and toddlers in public, to distract them with games and videos. Is it no wonder that kids want their own?
Too close for comfort?
Despite her acceptance of cellphones for kids, as “a normal part of adolescence,” Skenazy, author of “Free Range Kids,” has concerns, too.
“If they lose them, they only have so much earning power to pay you back,” she says.
More importantly, Skenazy warns that a cellphone can become “the world’s longest umbilical cord,” impeding a child’s growth toward independence. Kids with cellphones often call parents to help them make basic decisions, which they should be making on their own.
“It can create a sense of dependency and undermine a child’s self-confidence,” says East Hills Elementary School psychologist Christine Flanagan.
“Kids need some self-determination at some point,” she says. “By the time they are 10, for example, kids should know to eat if they are hungry.”
She even suggests that parents leave their cellphones home occasionally, so that they cannot be reached, thereby forcing their children to rely on their own resources to make reasonable age-appropriate decisions, without using their parents as a crutch.
Some parents refuse to do that, but I personally like being out of touch for a bit, as long as my kids know where I am in a true emergency. Not only can the cellphone enable children to become too attached, but one New Jersey mother confided in me that her kids “have a longer leash with a neurotic mother,” as she has a constant need to be sure that they are safe.
Teens have complained that parents who shadow their every step and constantly track them by navigation systems are stalkerish. Parents need to be wary of the fine line between monitoring for safety and demonstrating a total lack of confidence in their children, and slowly permit their children more autonomy.
Set & enforce rules
Osit notes that the pervasiveness of cellphones in our lives can cause adults to reach hasty conclusions, as “parents tend to assume their child knows proper use of it.” To the contrary, he has been privy to “horror stories” of unacceptable use by children and teens. Accordingly, he encourages parents to establish rules for phone use.
“The cellphone is a privilege — not a right,” he says. New York City banned cellphones in public schools in 2006.
“Parents need to be specific about what is appropriate and what is not,” says Osit. “Cellphones are not needed during homework; they should be in the parents’ possession or turned off at that time.”
He also tells parents to take away the phone for a few days if the rules are broken, and return it with the proviso that the rules will be adhered to in the future.
In my family, a cellphone had been used for 3 am conversations on school nights, and thereafter spent every night on the kitchen table unused after a set hour.
In an effort to set down rules for their kids, some creative Long Island parents drafted family cellphone contracts based on forms found online. They require the child and the parents to comply with different sets of expectations, many of which limit the child’s usage, but some of which require the parent not to unnecessarily invade his child’s privacy.
Osit also believes that parents should tell their children that they will occasionally check the child’s text messages, mindful of the “trust issue,” yet more concerned with safety and inappropriate behavior.
Parents can also purchase “starter phones,” or phones designed especially for younger children, which come with navigation systems for tracking and parental controls, so the child cannot text or surf the Internet. In this way, the child can stay connected with the parent, without worrying about inappropriate use or loss of a pricey phone.
Cellphones are inanimate tools. In the hands of responsible tweens and teens, they can be a wonderful means of communication and connection with parents, peers, and the outside world. But, they can be instruments for cyber-bullying, cheating, or any number of dangerous and unsuitable behaviors. Before we invite our children to join us in this fast-paced global electronic world, it is our responsibility to be sure they are prepared, well-mannered, and safe.
Risa C. Doherty is a freelance writer and attorney with a cellphone family plan. Read more at www.risadoherty.com.