Bend mom Lanora Bloxham was pretty surprised when her daughter Cassidy started begging to get a cell phone. At 11, the fifth-grader seemed way too young to be even thinking about it.
Bloxham has yet to give in to Cassidy’s requests, even though her daughter has been quite persistent. “I get bugged by her all the time.”
Because the Bloxhams don’t have a land line, Cassidy’s friends have to call Bloxham’s cell phone if they want to reach her.
While this isn’t ideal, Bloxham resists the idea that Cassidy needs a cell phone. Her daughter doesn’t go anywhere without an adult present, so Bloxham always has a way to get in touch.
She thinks Cassidy’s desire comes from media images of teens and ’tweens chatting on phones. “I think it has a lot to do with growing up too soon,” Bloxham said.
Sometime during middle school, however, she envisions Cassidy getting her own cell phone, because by that time, she will be attending events on her own.
Bloxham recognizes that other families have made different choices, and she sees children at Lava Ridge Elementary School, where she works and Cassidy attends, who have cell phones.
Younger and younger children are starting to carry cell phones.
“I definitely notice (the age) creeping down and down,” said Dory Devlin, who writes about kids and technology for Yahoo! Kids.
Part of it comes from kids’ desire to connect with friends, but another part comes from parents’ desire to keep kids safe.
Monica Vila, chief technology mom with The Online Mom, says cell phones are the number one topic parents discuss on her Web site, followed by online social networks.
“As something becomes pervasive, the need for it becomes pervasive,” said Vila. “At this point, it’s viewed as a necessity.”
Kids’ relationships with cell phones have changed dramatically, and this change can sometimes be tough for parents to understand. Virtually no students had their own mobile phones 20 years ago, whereas more than three-fourths of all teens age 15-17 possess them today, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
“It makes it really hard. Parents are really at a loss. They don’t understand where it’s all coming from,” said Bonnie Harris, a parent educator and author of “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids.”
The change is partly due to technology, which has made phones and coverage readily available, with tons of kid-friendly services like games and music.
The environment also has changed. Pay phones are disappearing. Events such as the Columbine school shootings and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks taught parents to value the instant accessibility cell phones provide.
Even when parents see the positive side of their kids owning a cell phone, they can feel behind the curve in terms of options and technology.
Vila thinks it is important for parents to have a positive attitude toward technology. “Embrace it, don’t fear it.”
But while parents see phones as a “way to keep track of where everybody is,” kids see them as a way to be socially connected. Most kids want phones that offer games, Web access, a camera and fun ring tones, says Vila.
“You need to think about all the different ramifications of device you select,” she said.
There is no right age for a first cell phone. Parents should consider a child’s maturity, responsibility and need. Parents may also want to consider a child’s ability to keep track of a valuable possession and follow guidelines.
Harris cautions, however, that few children age 7-12 truly need a cell phone, “because rarely are they not in the company of an adult.” The desire is for an accessory and to keep up with peers. Harris thinks parents should still make an effort to listen to their children and understand where they are coming from, while not giving in to demands.
Before purchasing a device, Vila suggests parents talk to kids about what they can and cannot do with the phone. For instance: Can kids download new ring tones? Can they text? If so, how often? Can they download games or surf the Web?
All of these options can add up. “This is a huge expense for a family,” said Devlin.
The monthly bill is another topic parents should be sure to approach with kids. Some parents agree to pay a certain figure each month and require kids to pay for any extras. Others require teens to foot the whole bill.
Vila also suggests parents talk to kids about taking and sharing photos with their phone. They need to understand the potential implications of these images.
Parents and kids should also research their school’s policy about cell phones. Restrictions on cell phone usage vary from school to school.
Harris suggests parents and children sit down and write up a list of guidelines. Some suggested expectations include: How much parents are willing to pay each month for the phone, how many minutes the child can use, how much texting is allowed, the hours the phone can be in use, what happens if the phone gets lost and when it can be used (for instance, not during mealtimes). Harris knows some parents who ask children to keep cell phones in the kitchen after 8 p.m.
Vila thinks cell phones should be an ongoing topic for parents and kids and not something parents talk about once for five minutes while they are in the store picking out a phone.
Bend mom Debbie Connors didn’t buy any of her children, ages 17, 14 and 11, a phone. Instead, they have three cell phones as part of a family plan and her kids can use the extra phone when needed, such as when they go to sports practices or out with friends. Since starting this practice, Connors’ daughter Natalie, a freshman at Summit High School, has been using the extra phone the most.
Connors embraces the technology because she likes knowing where her kids are. If they are late, she likes being able to call them and tell them they need to come home versus having to go look for them.
“The stress has been taken off,” she said.
The Connors have established some rules. The kids have to answer if their parents call, and if they get behind in schoolwork or have a bad attitude, their phone privileges disappear.
Many companies making phones and providing service have created features specially designed with kids and teens in mind. At the extreme end, some companies offer a phone that will only call a handful of numbers, which parents can program.
These phones, including models from Firefly and Kajeet, are aimed at younger children who would be using the phone only for emergencies. They do not offer texting, ring tone options or cameras, which is part of their appeal for parents. The original Firefly model includes few buttons and a fun, kid-friendly look.
The companies also offer a graduated range of parental controls on other phone models.
Devlin likes Kajeet for its online management tools for parents. Kajeet offers many special features, including the ability for parents to set limits on texting, which phone numbers are added to a child’s address book, time limits for phone calls and limits on the amount of money a student can spend.
TicTalk is another popular phone aimed specially at kids. In addition to extensive parental controls, it includes educational games through LeapFrog.
Many traditional cell phone providers offer controls for parents. Because these are constantly changing, parents should contact service providers or visit their Web sites to see what options are available.
Verizon, for instance, currently offers Chaperone service, which allows parents to track where their child is through their phone. Vila says these GPS phones are not terribly popular among parents. Harris finds the tracking system a bit “weird.”
“I always come from a place of encouraging parents to trust their children,” she said.
Verizon also offers a content-filtering service that gives parents the ability to restrict what type of content (including music, video and Web sites) kids can access through their phones.
Many companies offer pay-as-you-go services, which can be helpful for youngsters and parents worried about kids racking up a big bill. Parents can also ask that texting be turned off for certain phones.
Harris encourages parents to consider the potential health risks of cell phones. Cell phones use a low level of radiation to communicate with their base stations. Because cell phones are still relatively new, researchers are not certain what, if any, risks may be associated with long-term usage.
To combat potential risks, Harris suggests kids use speaker phone options or text messaging so the cell phones are “held to the head as little as possible.”