A few weeks ago I had one of those first-time conversations with my eight-year-old daughter, who’s looking forward to her upcoming birthday in July.
She asked: “Mommy, can I get a cell phone when I turn nine?”
“No,” I responded.
“How about when I’m 10?”
“No,” I said again.
I was surprised we were having this conversation, as I was driving with her buckled in the seat behind me. It seemed like only yesterday that she was fastened in a car seat with a five-point harness. In fact, I had only recently let her venture out on her first sleepover. Should I have anticipated that she’d be asking for a cell phone next?
“Well, how old were you when you got your first cell phone?” she inquired.
As I was laughing, I quickly realized this conversation was likely happening in many families. With little or no precedent to follow, how do parents decide the right time to let their child have a cell phone? Many of today’s parents didn’t have their first cell phone until they were in their 20s, the age I was when I first carried around a mobile device.
Without a doubt, there are many advantages for young people to be connected. Cell phones allow children to text or e-mail their families and friends regularly. Many parents agree that giving their child a mobile phone is a step toward ensuring their safety when either parent or child is not at home. We know parents whose children send them a text message when arriving at a friend’s house after school, providing some peace of mind when they and their children need to be apart.
But what about the implications of having a cell phone? Obviously, there’s a very real financial component. Cell phones aren’t cheap, and many smart phones cost more than $100, a price tag not including the monthly bill and associated data charges.
Secondly, with more well-deserved attention being focused on bullying through social media, parents may be naturally hesitant to have their children accessible to their peers during the hours away from school. Cell phones can also be a big distraction, especially for young drivers behind the wheel. What’s a parent to do?
For me, the decision is easy to make today. My eight-year-old will not receive a cell phone this year or next. For some reason, 12 seems like a more reasonable age, when she has the maturity to be responsible for such a gadget. For the most part, her time away from us amounts to sports practices, birthday parties and Girl Scout meetings. None of these activities—in her father’s and my estimation—requires her to carry a cell phone.
When it comes down to it, this is certainly a decision each family needs to make on its own. Every child and teen is different, and some exhibit more capabilities for responsible behavior than others. This is why parenting expert Deborah Gilboa, MD (Dr. G), says there really is no right age for a child to get a cell phone. She does, however, make the distinction between whether the phone is something the child wants or if it’s the parent who prefers to be more connected to a child.
“If the phone is for them, use it to teach some responsibility. Your child should earn part of the money to pay for the phone and sign a contract with you for how it may and may not be used,” she says.
Dr. G believes that the first cell phone a child receives shouldn’t be a so-called “smart phone,” with apps to social media sites. Yet if parents choose to let their children online through other methods, she feels following social media sites’ age guidelines an important first step.
When children do have the freedom and reach the age to be fully connected, it’s always wise for parents to keep apprised of this activity for all of the reasons mentioned above. Technology has many benefits for these young members of society, but parents should always pay attention to their children’s mobile device and other online activities.
To help with this task, programs and apps are available for parents trying to keep their children safe while using technology. Some apps have GPS trackers and can even help prevent cyber bullying. You can use your favorite Internet search engine to research “apps to keep kids safe online,” to access some of these resources.
Julia Sherwin is a freelance writer and mother of three who lives in Chester County. She is a former college journalism instructor who enjoys running, biking, swimming, traveling and cooking.
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