Cell Phones for Kids – Good or Bad?

Young kids think of unusual things to photograph with cell phones, as evidenced by this picture my daughter took of rubber tokay lizards playing hide-and-seek.

I love technology, but I was a late adopter for cell phones.  I just didn’t see the need to be THAT in touch with the world. I didn’t get a cell phone until I was eight months pregnant and it suddenly occurred to me that if I went into labor during my lengthy highway commute and had to pull over, I might really have a problem.  Then after my daughter was born, I kept my phone because I wanted to make sure if I had an emergency while away from home, I could call for help.  Risks are easy to take when they only affect yourself; but once you have kids, you look at safety in a whole new light.

But I rarely used my phone.  I had a cell plan that allowed 200 minutes per month (can you imagine?), but I typically used less than ten of them.

Then my daughter got old enough to use my phone.  Actually, she started using it before she could even crawl; she loved to gum it.  (Note: Don’t let your baby chew on your phone!  Too much drooling is involved!  Not only could this be a safety concern, shorting out your phone with slobber is not covered by the warranty!  [I checked.]  Lesson learned.)  But when she got old enough to make calls, I started letting her take the phone with her when she walked to the nearby playground by herself (small town) or to our beloved neighbors’ house.  She was so happy when she got to start carrying my phone!  She loved that she didn’t have to come home as often to check in, and I loved that it was an extra measure of safety.

I was a little concerned about the possible hazard of electromagnetic radiation, so I always had her to keep her calls to me short, but she still burned through my minutes.  I ended up having to upgrade my cell phone plan.  The first month she carried my cell phone, she used more minutes than I had used in total during the entire time I’d had a cell phone.

Of course, it wasn’t long before she began begging to have her own phone.  I told her that, for all intents and purposes, my phone was her phone.  “I never use my phone,” I pointed out.  But that wasn’t good enough.  She wanted it to be hers.

“Mom, I want my OWN cell phone.  I don’t think you understand.  I NEED my OWN cell phone.

That was at the worldly age of seven.  And she didn’t even know at the time how cool cell phones could be.  My phone was an ancient dinosaur of a phone with a black and gray (think digital watch) LCD display.  But she loved that thing like a family pet, and she was just certain that her life was incomplete without having one that belonged only to her.  She coveted other things, of course, but my cell phone was overwhelmingly the object of her desire.  (My laptop might have nudged out my cell phone except that she got her own laptop—a gift from my sister—before she started using my cell phone.)

The only thing that kept me from getting her a phone was that I just couldn’t really afford it.  She was a good kid, so she accepted that, but the desire still burned in her.

Then I met my husband-to-be, who, being a really take-charge and take-care-of-his-woman kind of guy, quickly upgraded my phone and put me on his cell plan.  My new phone was a beautiful metallic pink, it had a color screen, and, to the utter amazement and delight of my daughter (then eight), it had a built-in camera. Her life had a new purpose.

I still rarely used my phone.  Most often, it was in my daughter’s hands.  I continued to caution her away from using it too often as a phone, but she constantly texted everyone we knew and documented her life photographically (it was always a little startling when I discovered on the phone a close-up picture of her realistic-looking stuffed black panther or a picture of me that I hadn’t even realized she’d taken).  She quickly took her plea for her own phone to her future stepdad, but he was unexpectedly adamant in his belief that kids don’t need—and shouldn’t have—cell phones.

A year later, my new stepson came to live with us.  According to my husband, our daughter (10 at that point) was still too young for a phone, but our son (14) needed one.  Hubby had already promised a cell phone to our daughter at the end of the school year (and didn’t want to move that up), but he wanted to get one immediately for our son.  I suggested that we wait and get both of the kids phones at the same time.  My husband ultimately agreed to that plan, even though he wasn’t too happy about it (“Kids his age need cell phones!  He has to be able to text his friends, or he’ll be left out!”), but I thought that was a better idea to get them at the same time.  (Since my daughter had wanted her own cell phone ever since she could chew, I didn’t want her to feel left out.)

However, impatience got the better of him, and he ordered the kids matching cell phones weeks before school was out.  It was like Christmas morning and a trip to Disneyland all rolled into one. Words cannot describe how happy the kids were to finally get cell phones.

And of course we didn’t need to show them how to use the phones.  Being “digital natives,” they were both instantly up and running and had their phones configured to their own tastes before I could even remember how to add their phone numbers into my own phone.  And they use them constantly. They text each other even when they are sitting right next to each other.  The house has developed a cacophony of various ring tones, text alerts, and alarms.

I must admit, having the kids so accessible has been nice. I no longer need to holler down the hall for them.  I just text them.  I can let them wander off in stores without worrying about finding them when I’m ready to leave.  If they go to a friend’s house and (accidentally?) stay longer than I said they could, a quick call or text brings them running.  I no longer have to wait to use the house phone (why call your friends when you can text them, they think).  When we go somewhere in the car, they both have built-in entertainment with them.  I have the peace of mind of knowing that if they get hurt at the park or something like that, they can call for help.  A sudden thunderstorm rolled in the other day, and I could instantly call my son to make sure he was indoors.  It’s not absolute protection, of course, but I really like having this safety tether on them.

Surprisingly, both kids have been religiously careful with their phones.  They protect them like living things.  I warned them that if they lose or break their phones, they’ll have to wait two years to get new ones.  And they’ve really taken that to heart.  Perhaps having a phone—something so vitally important to both of them—will teach them to be more responsible with their belongings.

I would have liked to have given my daughter a cell phone when she was seven (and maybe even younger), though, at the time, I wasn’t certain it was a good idea.  Now that she has one, I have no regrets about it (except that I still encourage both kids to minimize phone time and use their speakerphone functions due to EMR concerns).  And I agree with my husband that a teenager can actually be left out of a social circle if he/she doesn’t have a cell phone.  My daughter’s best friend doesn’t have a cell phone (though she does have an iPod Touch, which has texting capability when she’s in a Wi-Fi area), but she is the only person their age that either of them knows who does not have a cell phone.  They truly are ubiquitous by their age.  Even a girl they know from a desperately poor family has her own cell phone.

Is this need for a cell phone a crazy new form of materialism, or is this just the new reality of how our world runs today?  Is it a tragedy that we have lost some things to technology (handwriting, anyone?), or is it actually a breathtaking advancement that our children are so at home with it?

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