Does Your Child Need a Cell Phone?

Cell phones are communication tools, not toys. Can children who crave them understand the difference and treat them appropriately?

Near the close of his online video commentary, “Cellphones for Kids,” New York Times technology columnist David Pogue remarks, “Kindergartners are now packing cell phones.”

“And guess what?” he adds. “I don’t think that’s the end of it.”

At this point, the camera cuts to a toddler who picks up a cell phone and says, “Dada.”

It is a funny scene, but parents probably should do some serious thinking about when their kids are ready for cell phones.

Recently, Scouting magazine advertising production manager Lisa Hott and I discussed how we both gave our older children cell phones when they started to drive. We confessed we provided our younger children with cell phones earlier, when each was in eighth grade.

As it turns out, Hott and I are part of a trend of parents giving offspring cell phones at younger and younger ages. Last June, a study by New York City-based JupiterResearch reported that nearly one-half of U.S. children ages 12 or 13 would have a cell phone by the end of 2007, “while one-third of children ages 10 or 11 will have a cell phone in the same period.”

New phones with sleek designs that appeal to young children—while keeping moms and dads in mind—may partially account for this phenomenon. Parents can now choose an increasing array of controls to determine how, when, with whom, how long, and under what circumstances their sons and daughters can talk on those phones.

“We can’t say a child should absolutely not have a cell phone before a specific age,” says psychologist Anita Gurian, Ph.D. “Similar to any other area about children and adolescents, there are no absolutes.”

And because there also is no time-tested wisdom for dealing with this new technology, parents may find the following considerations helpful.

Safety—pros and cons. Cell phones are “a wonderful way to keep in touch, make sure your children are safe, and know what they’re doing, especially for working parents,” says Dr. Gurian, executive editor of About Our Kids, the Web site of the New York University Child Study Center.

In a developmentally positive way for “’tween-agers”—kids age 8 to 12—a cell phone can reinforce the importance of “staying in touch,” Dr. Gurian adds.

But most children this age shouldn’t be left alone and may not truly need a cell phone. In “Kids and Cell Phones” on the Pediatrics Web site, pediatrician Dr. Vincent Iannelli observes that “in most situations, your child will be able to use a regular phone or the cell phone of whichever adult is supervising them.”

One appeal of cell phones to adolescents is that they offer access to a wider world. But as kids gain freedom, parents lose some control, and sheltering youngsters from harmful contacts becomes more difficult. For instance, cyber bullying now extends to cell phones.

And, because kids and their phones are on the go, parents have a harder time monitoring where children wander in Cyberspace than if they surf the Web on a home computer.

Responsibility. Lisa Hott and her husband don’t allow Internet access on their children’s cell phones. They decided not to, Hott says, because they were trying to teach responsibility: The cell phone “served a purpose,” and that purpose “was not for entertainment” but to keep in touch—especially with Mom and Dad.

Etiquette and school rules. In “Cell Phones for Kids?” on, media expert Greg Taillon points out: “It is rude to interrupt a one-on-one conversation by answering a cell phone.”

Dr. Gurian says parents should establish rules, like never use a cell phone within 20 feet of another person, turn off the phone in places where you could disturb others, and private conversations should not occur in public places.

Students must also adhere to schools’ cell-phone policies. Many schools prohibit cell-phone use during classes, and infractions may result in confiscation.

Costs. Evaluating and choosing from seemingly endless combinations of equipment, usage, and payment plans can be daunting. It is important to let your child know how your usage is billed and the replacement cost for a lost or broken phone.

Nighttime, weekend, and in-network calling may be free with your network. But shared minutes during weekday hours can soon evaporate if your child is prone to long conversations. Also, charges for downloads, ring tones, text messaging, and sending photos can quickly mount.

Discussing these topics, Dr. Gurian says, provides the whole family a valuable consumer education lesson. Such discussion, Dr. Gurian believes, will drive home the point that a cell phone is an expense, and it should be used within guidelines agreed to by all family members.


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