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Should Your Child Have a Cell Phone?

By carolyncastiglia |

I’ve been fascinated with New York City for as long as I can remember.  When I was a kid, I wanted to go there before I really even knew what it was.  I remember being six years old, asking my mother when she would take me to New York.  She told me she’d take me when I was 15.  (She never did.)

Now the New York Times is reporting a story that starts with a Dad named David Poger, who promised to buy his daughter Maya a cell phone at age 15, “but last year he and his wife caved when she was 11.”

The Pew Research Center reports that “75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States own a mobile phone, up from 45 percent in 2004.”  I’ve heard tales – as I’m sure you have, too – about 6- and 7-year-olds being given cell phones.  Why a child that age would need a cell phone, I have no idea… unless you’re planning on allowing them to circumnavigate the globe solo.  Ahem.

The Times says, “Parents generally say they buy their child a phone for safety reasons, because they want to be able to reach the child anytime…. But for children, it is all about social life and wanting to impress peers.”  Amen.  I’ve mentioned my 12-year-old niece several times because of her addiction to two things: technology and Justin Bieber.  She told me she got her first cell phone at age 10, has had “about 7″ phones in the last two-and-a-half years, and sends – in her estimation – “somewhere around 7 to 800″ texts a day.  I honestly almost believe her.  Every time I see my niece, she’s texting – obsessively.  And every time I see her, I ask her, politely but firmly, to put her phone down and talk to me.  She always does, but when I tell her I’m worried because she’s addicted to her phone, she shrugs and says, “Yeah, but all my friends are, too.”

The Times suggests that the age at which you give your child a cell phone “depends on the child’s maturity level and need for the phone,” but I’m convinced no child needs a phone.  Anyone who is old enough to have a child today is old enough to remember life before cell phones.  We got along just fine without them.  Obviously this is nostalgia taking hold, because I do remember being bored as a kid, but I also remember life being enjoyably simpler and simply more enjoyable.  And not just because I didn’t have adult responsibilities, but because – and this is especially poignant now that we’ve seen the other side – there is something blissful about being completely unavailable to anyone besides the people you are physically with.

Sure – there were times in the pre-cell phone era when emergencies happened and people didn’t find out right away.  I’m not saying cell phones are all bad.  I’m just echoing what I said on Thursday: overall, we need to be more mindful about our phone use.  Especially teenagers, who use their phones mindlessly all day.  My niece just sent a text to Facebook that reads ”on my way home. facebook,,IM,,txtin.? yeaa.! btw,,ilyTyler.♥;*”  Yeah, that’s a quote.

Ruth Peters, a child psychologist in Clearwater, Fla., says children are ready for their own phones in middle school, “when they begin traveling alone to and from school, or to after-school activities, and may need to call a parent to change activities at the last minute or coordinate rides.”  Don’t kids ride the bus anymore?  When I was in middle school, getting picked up or dropped off by anyone other than your bus driver was rare.  Nowadays, there are SUVs lined up and down the block(s) in front of schools morning and afternoon.  Are we making life too cushy for our kids?  And inconveniencing ourselves just to look like prize parents?  Maybe as Bethenny Frankel famously told Jill Zarin on Real Housewives of New York, we all need to get a hobby.

Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA, cautions parents about giving their kids a phone too young.  “Kids want the phone so that they can have private communication with their peers,” she said.  “You should wait as long as possible, to maintain parent-child communication.”

My niece has a phone mentioned in the article as being attractive to teenagers, the LG enV3.  She says she uses it to text, call, take pictures and video and listen to MP3s.  My sister is aware of my niece’s constant phone use, but says, “At least I know where she is.”  (And then often follows that with a chiding, “You wait til your kid is her age!”)

But back to Mr. Poger, whose 6-year-old daughter now wants a cell phone like her big sister Maya.  “She’s going to wait until she’s 11,” he said.

I didn’t make it to New York until I was a junior in college, and I’ll never forget the impression my first visit left on me.  My boyfriend at the time and I stayed in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights (what did I know of Brooklyn Heights?) and the way the sunlight dappled the streets made me feel like I was in heaven.  I remember being stuck in traffic and watching a black, female police officer directing the cars, thinking, this is where I want to live.  These are my people.

Some things are worth waiting for.

Photo: Pierre LaScott via Flickr

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About carolyncastiglia

carolyncastiglia

carolyncastiglia

Carolyn Castiglia is a New York-based comedian/writer wowing audiences with her stand-up and freestyle rap. She’s appeared in TONY, The NY Post, The Idiot’s Guide to Jokes and Life & Style. You can find Carolyn’s writing elsewhere online at MarieClaire.com and The Huffington Post. Read bio and latest posts → Read Carolyn's latest posts →

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20 thoughts on “Should Your Child Have a Cell Phone?

  1. Heather says:

    when our kids eventually get a phone, it will have so many locks and restrictions set up on it, they won’t be able to get into much trouble. That is the perk of having a husband who used to work for Nokia.

  2. ignatz says:

    This makes me feel old, but when I was in high school, there was ONE kid who had her own phone at ALL, and she was the most spoiled princess on earth. Hell, they even CALLED it a “princess phone.”

  3. jenny tries too hard says:

    My husband and I got my baby sister a phone when she lived with us. She was 10-11. She’s coming up on 15 now. At the time, I trusted her to walk and ride her bike within our neighborhood and knew a handful of families with girls her age that she was allowed to play with. When I wanted her to come home at a time other than the one I’d given her (like when I realized I would have to go to the store, or when I needed to fix something emergency-ish at work) I could call her right away and tell her to either come straight home or stay put so I could pick her up. The one time she stayed out past the time my husband had told her to come home, he just called her (sternly) on her phone instead of holding dinner off and/or packing up our own kids ages infant-5 to look for her, or calling half the parents in our neighborhood. We’ll probably get our own kids cell phones around the same age, with restrictions.

  4. Samantha says:

    My baby is 11 months old, so I have time to make this decision, but I badly needed a cell phone growing up in suburban England 30 years ago. I lived in a very nice suburb that nonetheless had serious problems with child/women predators and I was often afraid walking/cycling home. I would have loved for my parents to be only a phone call away.

  5. Tanya says:

    One day when all the pay phones are gone your kids will need a cell phone, unless your plan is to make them borrow phones from friends or random houses…

  6. Amy @ Frugal Mama says:

    I totally agree with you on this. I wrote a similar article — How Being Frugal Can Preserve Your Child’s Innocence — on my blog. http://www.frugal-mama.com/2009/12/how-being-frugal-can-preserve-your-childs-innocence/ Posted on Mamapedia, it incited over 80 comments. I also love your descriptions of your love affair with New York. I’m with you on that too!

  7. Baltimore Mom says:

    Cell phones are so common now that I think people forget what life was like without them. And sometimes forget their manners too. I recently was a treated to a blow by blow of a girl’s hot and heavy date while waiting in line at Target by the customer standing behind me, who didn’t bother to keep her voice down. And a friend recently chewed me out when she called me and I didn’t answer. Just because I HAVE a cell phone doesn’t mean I’m compelled to ANSWER it every time it rings!

    My kids can have them when they are old enough to be going places without an adult, or are depending on other people for rides. I remember having to wait over an hour in the rain for my mom to pick me up in high school because the test I was taking let out earlier than expected and she was grocery shopping and not home to get my (pay phone) call.

  8. carolyncastiglia says:

    OMG me too! Waiting was a normal part of life as a kid. People don’t know how to wait anymore. Imagine how a teen of today would deal with queuing for bread in the communist block – they’d have a panic attack and collapse! I guess that’s not a logical comparison, but you know what I mean. The funny thing is, my niece looks like a caged rat while she’s “happily” texting non-stop, but as soon as she puts it down and looks me in the eye, her whole demeanor is suddenly calm and serene. I feel the same way when I’m working all day and then I finally stop churning stuff out. This is all part of a greater trend discouraging down time. I get riled up about the fact that people have to be entertained all the time, too. Which I know seems strange, given that I’m an entertainer, but people don’t engage in the live experience as much anymore – it’s all screens all the time. We have to talk to each other to experience soul!

    Eh, I gotta get off the computer and read a book. ;)

  9. Baltimore Mom says:

    Oh, but I did think of when cell phones are a really great thing. When your car breaks down. So you don’t have to wait for someone to pull over and see if you need help and pray to God they aren’t an axe murderer. I got my first cell phone at 18, when I started college and was commuting back and forth to class in a very old car. It broke down several times, once really late, and the cell enabled me to call a towtruck.

    My husband sometimes offers to do the grocery shopping to “help me out.” But then he calls me 6 times with questions about my list. “Do you want the 8 ounce sour cream or the 16? They are out of bananas, what fruit should I get instead?” If he didn’t have the phone, he’d be forced to figure it out himself instead of pestering me.

  10. Maureen says:

    We aren’t a big cell phone family here — we have a prepaid phone only for emergencies. If you need to reach me, you’ll just have to wait until I get home:) But I think a commenter above brings up a great point… the dearth of pay phones. I used them frequently as a teen, but they are hard to find now. I might say middle school is a good age for an emergency phone… but I’ve got a while since my kids are 5 and 7. My niece got her first phone at age 11 and my brother said the reason was because she was being left out of the social circle because everyone else had a phone. I worry about what that means.

  11. LindaLou says:

    We put our daughter on our plan when she started middle school at age 11. She’s had it for two years and we’ve never had a problem. She does not have texting on her phone and she knows she shares minutes with her dad and me. She normally uses it to arrange when she’ll see people in person, not for long chats. I like that she takes it when she leaves the house and I know I can reach her or she can reach us if she has an emergency or a ride falls through or plans change.

  12. PlumbLucky says:

    They have their uses (I am NOT a rampant texter, I do not have a smartphone, and my cellphone is partly convenience and partly necessity.) and I can see that. My one concern is “how many payphones are still in existence and still function?”. I’ve noticed its nearly impossible to locate one at any given point. Heck, I’ve been in our local HS within the past couple months and there are NO payphones (I recall my HS having a bank of the things). I’m hoping that by the time our toddler is old enough for this to be a real issue, there are some good controls easily in place, like disabling texts, phones without cameras (heck, I want one NOW because of my job, I have to leave my phone with security far too often…because it has a camera and I’m someplace where I can’t take one).
    My boss has a good system, seemingly, from the outside at least. They have an extra cellphone, its a low-end model w/ no camera, texting blocked, etc. If his kids are someplace without Mom and Dad, and away from school, they take the phone with them. But it isn’t the kids phone, technically.

  13. JZ says:

    My 10 yr old doesnt need one…I know where he is (which is with me/family) all of the time. He’ll probably get one when he starts driving and is more independent.

  14. goddess says:

    My kids get them once they are 15-16, have a steady job for 3 months or more, and can afford the bill. Same goes with having a car available for them. Once they have a job with money for the increase in the insurance and the gas for it- and good grades for the Safe Driver Discount. *I* believe this makes them more responsible. All I know is – I’ve never had to pay my 20 yr old’s phone or insurance bill, even though he’s in college full time.

  15. LindaLou says:

    I can’t imagine having a 10-15 year old child who is “with me/family) all of the time.” Does he not ever go places with friends or get dropped off at the skating rink or ride his bike around the neighborhood? I don’t get it.

  16. Tanya says:

    I think a brilliant solution would be to hang on to an older cell phone (one without all the texting and *smartness*) activate that when your kid gets old enough to need one. This is provided the older model still works on the cell network.

  17. To School Or To Unschool?…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)

  18. Claire says:

    Those are very interesting statistics. I have heard many people say that kids should have a cell phone when they can pay for it themselves. I have also heard that kids should start at a young age with “kiddie” cell phones like the Firefly. I disagree, I think kids deserve a cellphone when they need one, and when they understand how valuable they are. Kids are usually ready in sixth grade, because they become more mature, very social and need to communicate to there parents in emergency situations, or when they need to get picked up from someone’s house. I’m a teen intern for a parenting website that gives advice from a teen’s perspective (Radicalparenting.com). There’s an article on the site about this exact topic called “7 Steps For Parents: Should Your Child Have A Cell Phone”. You might want to look at a different perspective, feel free to check it out:
    http://www.radicalparenting.com/2008/01/24/7-steps-for-parents-should-your-child-have-a-cell-phone/

  19. alliena says:

    kids should have a cellphone because they should always be in contacy with their parent/guardian

  20. Canuckmom says:

    My kids will get a cellphone when they can pay for the plan themselves. But they also go to a private non-bussed school so I’ll be driving them everyday til the oldest is 16…

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