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Hanging on the Cell Phone

At the end of fifth grade, my son MacIntyre informed me that he and maybe two other kids in his grade did not have cell phones. A few weeks later at a parents’ meeting for children moving to middle school, I chatted with the mother of one of his friends. She mentioned how her son wanted a cell phone. “Oh, he’s the other child without a phone!” I remarked.

We laughed and I think felt a bit bolstered in our stand on not getting our children cell phones just yet. But the pressure sure was there.

Six months later found my husband shopping for an iPod Touch for our son’s 12th birthday. We had decided to “give in” on the portable-communication front. At least that’s how it felt to me. The iPod Touch would allow Mac to text, take photos and video, listen to music, watch videos (especially from YouTube), but not make phone calls. Although the Touch costs about $200, it does not require a calling plan or a monthly data plan. Our kids couldn’t believe we bought him anything this good.

At first Mac texted a few friends after school, but the novelty soon wore off. Mostly he texts my husband or me asking when we’re getting home from work and could we bring him a fast-food snack. Six months later, he and his sister are still asking when they get cell phones. (We’ve told our daughter, Annie, age 11, that she will get an iPod Touch for her 12th birthday.) Mac plays some games on the iPod, watches videos and uses the Internet when he’s in a free Wifi zone. I think this has certainly filled his middle-school need to be “textable” for the time being.

But this problem is not easily solved for parents. The “cell phone question” involves money, texting, technology, peer pressure, school, the Internet and more.

Asked for a good age to get a child a cell phone, Sue Witmer of Oswego answers “12” without hesitation, which makes me feel better. Like many parents, she found that when her son started regular after-school activities, it was helpful for him to have a phone to call his parents for a ride home. When one lacrosse team meeting ended early, even other kids borrowed his phone to call their parents.

Missy Giardine, a mother of three in Syracuse, is less comfortable giving kids cell phones. “I am the anti-tech mom,” she says. “I have concerns about too much technology at a young age.” She also thinks adolescents spend too much time texting and not enough time in face-to-face communication. “I just think kids need to develop some social skills.”

A study by the Pew Center for Research into teen use of cell phones in 2011 found that texting is up and phone conversation is down overall. But those teens who do the most texting also make the most phone calls, according to the study of the Internet and American life.

Giardine relented and let her daughter get a cell phone when she was entering eighth grade last year and playing soccer after school. The phone made post-game and after-practice pickups easier.

It also came with limitations, however. Her daughter had to pay for the phone with her cat-sitting money and she and her parents split a year’s worth of prepaid minutes, which covers calls and texting. If the minutes run out or the phone breaks or gets lost, that’s it, Giardine says. Waiting in the wings is her 12-year-old son, who is much more “technology driven” than her daughter. Her daughter was concerned with how cool the phone would look. She found one to buy online that seemed cool enough and was satisfied. “Once she had the cell phone, the novelty for her wore off really quickly.”

Another Syracuse mother says that the incentive of an iPhone encouraged her daughter to do better in school. The parents promised to buy their B student an iPhone if she earned a 90 or better in every class for two quarters of the year. So they had to dig in and get the iPhone when their daughter met the challenge with outstanding grades. Even better, their daughter found she liked doing so well in school and has kept up the studying and excelling. The mother does use the parental controls available via the phone network to limit use of the phone. For example, texting capability gets turned off by 10 p.m. or earlier on school nights so the girl can study or sleep. Texting and even the entire phone have been taken away as punishment for not doing chores or disobeying parents.

As Giardine has explained to her daughter, family dynamics differ from home to home. Giardine uses a prepaid phone and her husband uses an Android phone from his job.

In my case, my husband and I both use iPhones and Macintosh laptops, and he has an iPad from his job. The iPod Touch seemed to fit in with our family without going the full-fledge iPhone path. According to Pew Research, about 25 percent of children ages 12 to 17 use smartphones, but mostly they are in the 14-to-17 age range.

Conversely, whenever I ask students in my college mass communication classes when children should get cell phones, they urge as late as possible. They warn of inappropriate use of the Internet (a.k.a. porn) and cyber bullying. (Of course they say this while sneaking peeks at their own phones on their laps during class.)

My husband and I have warned and continue to discuss misuse of the Internet with our kids. We told our children they are not to send photos to anyone; the photos may be forwarded to others and/or altered to make fun of the person in the photo. Innocent photos sent even to trusted friends should not be the norm. The kids appear to have gotten the message—so far.

With the start of this school year, Giardine says of her daughter, “I’m kind of glad she has the phone going into high school.” As far as her 9-year-old son, she says, “I have a few years before he realizes that he needs this, too.”         

Eileen Gilligan, an award-winning writer and mother of two, lives in Baldwinsville.

Photo above: © Ron Chapple | Dreamstime.com

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