Kids and Cell Phones

Originally published at Clarionledger.com, 3/11/2013.

Last week, I asked some parents about what was the right age for your child to have a cell phone. The results were all over the place, but there seemed to be a common thread: this decision should be tied to the specific child’s needs, responsibility and safety.

In the survey, which asked for a specific age, the most popular answer was, “depends on the child”, followed by 15 and 12 years old. “When they can pay for it,” said several parents responding on Facebook; “When they start driving,” said others.

Giving your kid a cell phone these days is not like it was even five years ago. Today’s smartphones are a window to the world. The phone has been transformed in short order from a device useful for only voice communications, to a multi-talented companion without which many of us would be lost (literally, in some cases!) They serve as fully-functioning computers, a portal to the Internet, camera, calendar, games platform, and on and on. The function is only limited by the apps you can put on them. But parents would be wise to remember that — for all their beneficial qualities — you are also giving your child access to everything and everyone who might not have the best intentions. Also, the alarming rise in cases of “distracted driving” should concern any parent.

The website Commensense.org, which has a lot of advice geared towards helping parents make good decisions about the media, recommends answering the following questions before deciding whether to give your child a phone:

How independent are your kids? If they have shown you they can be reliable, perhaps it might be reasonable to get them a phone.
Do they need to be in touch for safety reasons, or social reasons? For example, if you have to be late picking up your daughter from ballet practice, you might want to give her a way to communicate with you.
How responsible are they? Will they follow the rules you set, as well as those set by others (school, coaches, etc.)?
Can they understand what it means when they download an app, or reach their texting limit?
Do they really need a do-it-all smartphone, when a basic phone might better suffice?
Do they understand the possible dangers from sharing information, such as “checking in” on Facebook and other apps? Many apps share your location so anyone can find out exactly where you are.

Other things to consider:
Be aware of the social ramifications of not “fitting in”. Some kids want a phone just because of social pressure they feel. Those concerns loom large to a teen. Some kids handle it better than others.
Consider a basic phone at first, to see if they handle it responsibly. Some parents start kids out with a “pay-as-you-go”, or prepaid, phone.
Are you ready to take it away, should the need arise? If you tie the phone privilege to something specific, such as getting good grades or not getting in trouble, you should be prepared to follow through.

Bottom line: most parents agree that his decision should be driven by the parents, not the child. “We’re still the parents,” says Commensense Media editor Liz Perle, “And it’s our job to say “no, not yet.

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