Should kids have their own cell phones?


A couple years ago, when our four kids ranged in age from nine to 17, nine-year-old Jamie made a comment that a child in her class had an iPhone. “Jamie, you need to start planning now that you’ll be the last kid in your class to get a phone,” Liam, then 14, said. “Not only will you be the last kid in your class, but most of the kids a few grades younger than you will get phones before you do,” added Jacob, 17. Eleven-year-old Teenasia chimed in, “Yep, only one other girl besides me in the fifth grade doesn’t have her own phone or iPod.”

Looking in the rearview mirror of the minivan at Jamie, who sat behind me, I decided not to point out that the majority of kids in her third-grade class didn’t yet have phones or devices. Instead, I took my cue from my older children and went the other direction. “Yes, they’re right. You’ll probably be the last,” I said. “That’s just the way our family is. But maybe you’ll get one by high school.”

The two older boys went on to exaggerate, in the way only teenage boys can, the trials and tribulations they faced by the decision of their dad and me to hold off on allowing them phones until they were in grades 9 and 8, respectively.

“We were cut off from the world,” said Jacob.

“Completely,” said Liam. “And you will be, too. Because that’s what Mom and Dad want for you.”

Looking back, I still smile when I think of that conversation—everyone was laughing by the end of it, discussing the lack of pre-teen cell phone/device use in our family as if it were an inevitable genetic trait that no one could do anything about.

My husband Bill and I have serious reasons for not allowing our tweens or young teens to have personal devices that can go online or text, but we spend almost no time discussing this issue with Jamie, now 11, or Teenasia, now 13—not because we’re unwilling to talk about our philosophy, but because it doesn’t come up that often. The girls know there is no chance of getting their own phones or iPod touches anytime in the near future, and they don’t bring it up. Much, I suppose, as other children don’t ask their parents for a horse. (We don’t have horses, either, just in case you were wondering.)

My husband and I hold off on cell phone/device usage for our tween and teen children because we feel that when a child is under 14 or so, the risks of the device outweigh the benefits. We believe this risk/benefit ratio changes somewhere around eighth grade or high school entrance, when it’s more important for an adolescent to be able to connect and communicate with friends.

According to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Pew Research Center, about one in five children and teens who go online will receive an online solicitation for sexual activity. And 95 percent of children and teens who are part of a social network site will witness cruel behavior among their peers. In addition, studies show a connection between texting, social networking, and anxiety.

The average age at which a child in the U.S. receives his or her first cell phone has been dropping for the past decade. Currently, the average age is 11 years. Much of what 10-, 11- or 12-year-old children have to say to each other is appropriate; some of it is hilarious and some is just childish. But the dark side of tweens is that on their way learning how to develop friendships, they make poor choices. They can even be cruel. Texting can be a tool for gossip; for silent treatment; a way to bully and demean. It can be a way to try out obscene language or sexually-charged statements (or pictures) outside of parents’ range.

My husband and I have decided that late elementary school is our final chance to be the main voice in our children’s lives and we are choosing not to hand this opportunity over to our children’s peers or to those strangers who may seek to exploit them. In doing so, we believe we are both protecting our children and giving them the gift of a few more years of childhood, to grow into the people they are created to become.

Before I’m dismissed as anti-technology, let me stress that technology is a part of our family’s daily life. I have the latest version of the iPhone and text regularly with friends and family members; my husband has been streaming TED talks this week on our smart TV as our daughter does exercises for a recent knee injury; we bank and shop online. Our oldest son, now sophomore at Notre Dame, has a part time job with their IT department as tech support. Among us, we own one Mac, three PC laptops, an iPad, four smart phones, and an e-reader.

But despite a family embrace of technology, neither of our daughters has her own iPod or cell phone. Our sons didn’t get their phones or devices—or email or Facebook accounts—until high school. If either daughter needs to go online on the family Mac, a parent will stay in the room with her. We have high levels of network security blocking possible porn sites from being accessed—either intentionally or not.

When our children are tweens or early teens, they are not allowed to use the family computer, the TV or the school iPad without permission. When we grant permission to the girls, it is almost always for a school project. Bill and I know what is being accessed or watched, and it’s usually for no more than 30 minutes at a time. If a school project is complex, we extend the time as necessary and are on hand to help our daughters learn how to efficiently use a search engine to reduce time spent aimlessly searching for information regarding the subject at hand.

It’s because of our understanding of technology and respect of it that we draw such firm limits. Statistics and research support parents who decide to keep kids away from social media and device ownership until they are older. A study out of the University of Southern California, published in the journal Pediatric showed that children aged 10-14 who texted frequently (more than 100 texts per day) were more likely to engage in sexual activity than their non-texting or less-frequently texting peers. And cases of sexual predators trolling kids’ online activity are well-documented.

Studies also show it is the kids themselves who are often their own worst enemy—their natural curiosity drives them to pornographic sites (28 percent of girls and 53 percent of boys ages 12-15 report use of sexually explicit media). Their still-developing sense of judgment can lead to decisions made in seconds that can have consequences that live indefinitely in cyberspace.

When our children were infants, we baby-proofed our home; we put up safety gates in front of the stairs and covered outlets. As they got older, the gates came down and we took the plastic off our outlets. The stairs and electricity were still there, but we had taught our children how to use them. Now, we must do the same with their use of texting, social media, and online access. The gates need to be up for awhile—not forever—but until our children are developmentally able to use the technology more safely.

The danger of tweens texting, having online access, and being part of social media sites is that parents are cut out of the loop too soon. An added problem can be too-easy access to games that suck time away from homework and the family. Texting drives tween communication underground, where it cannot be monitored or guided. A good friend of mine gave her 12-year-old son an iPod touch, thinking he’d mostly use it for music, but instead found out—several months later—that he was messaging friends late into the night, long after his parents went to bed. In doing so, he compromised both his health and his relationship with his parents, which became strained because of the breach in trust.

A sixth grade teacher at our local public middle school told me that just about every one of his 100 or so parent-teacher conferences included frustrated comments from the parent about the difficulty they have in managing their children’s time on their devices. “The devices are taking the child away from the family, from their school work, and from doing other things in their free time,” he said. “Parents give the device without realizing that it is extremely difficult to manage it, and set limits. It’s so much easier to hold off from getting a device than it is to manage it once the child has it.”

Will children deprived of a device in elementary school feel out of step with their peers, who carry smartphones, have Facebook accounts, and play games against each other online? Sometimes, yes. When she was in sixth grade, Teenasia came out of basketball practice crying. Many of her friends had received new devices as Christmas gifts, and after practice, the girls were all texting each other and posting Instagrams. Teenasia felt left out and alone.

As she sat next to me in the front seat, tears streaming down her face, I was sad she felt so excluded. I spoke to her sympathetically, acknowledged it was hard, then explained to her gently why Bill and I believe children should wait until they are older to have their own device. (Sometimes even when a child doesn’t ask for the horse, you need to explain why the horse is not possible.) She remained quiet—not arguing, not agreeing—just crying.

The difficult evening passed, and several months later, when a few of Teenasia’s friends got into some texting gossip trouble, Teenasia said to me, “I know this sounds weird, but sometimes I’m actually glad I don’t have a phone. I’m not sure I’d want to deal with all that—it’s a lot of drama.”

While our family life is far from conflict-free, I can say that I never have arguments with my daughters regarding time spent texting, gaming or going online. My daughters may feel a pang of envy every so often at school or at parties when they see friends with devices, but when they are at home, they are present to their dad and me in a way that perhaps some of their friends are not.

Bill and I believe firmly that the preteen years offer a rich opportunity for parents to talk with children; do activities together; impart values. Devices can make it too easy for children to turn to peers—rather than parents—for guidance and support. Bill and I are so grateful to God for the privilege of guiding and forming these children—lent to us for such a short while. Our response to God is to parent them with both intention and care. And for that, no device is needed.

By Annemarie Scobey, who writes for At Home with Our Faith and who is also the author of Discovering Motherhood: An Extraordinary Journey through Everyday Life (Ambassador Books, 2006). She lives in Glendale, Wisconsin.

From U.S. Catholic magazine, used with permission.

Flickr photo cc by Criminalintent

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