Cellphones for kids are more gadget than necessity

Michelle Singletary
Columnist November 25, 2011

My son has had a case of cellphone envy for several years now.

To hear him tell it, he’s the last kid in his eighth-grade class who doesn’t have a phone. When his father upgraded his 3G iPhone to the 4S version, my son had visions of a smartphone hand-me-down for Christmas.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Not yet.

My husband and I aren’t in a hurry to give our son a cellphone, for a number of reasons, including that the device would probably get misplaced. That’s not a criticism — just a reality.

Parenting is a personal thing, and what’s good for one child might not be good for another. But here’s my 2 cents’ worth:

First, I’m amazed at the number of children — at least younger than high school age — who have cellphones. And I’m dismayed that so many parents haven’t established rules for how the phones should be used. (Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised, given the rude and inconsiderate way so many adults use their phones.)

Let’s start with the age thing. A recent Verizon Wireless survey found that the average age for a child to get a cellphone is 11. Almost 10 percent of surveyed parents said they gave their children a phone between the ages of 7 and 9.

The survey found that 95 percent of parents said they got the phones for safety, emergencies and to ensure that they could reach their children at any time.

Is it just me? Where would a young child be without adult supervision so that he or she would need a cellphone? And why would a young child — or teen, for that matter — need an iPhone or any smartphone?

In recent years, telecom companies, in their quest to snag even more customers, have made it seem more affordable to add children to a family plan. But think about this: If your own cellphone were truly a necessity, then the vast majority of your calls or text messages would be urgent or for an emergency, and that’s hardly the case.

By giving cellphones to kids and telling them they’re a necessity, you are not teaching them the difference between a need and a want. So, as adults, instead of getting a basic cellphone plan because they have so many other expenses, they opt to pay for the Cadillac plan because they think that it’s a necessity.

Here’s at least one rule you should follow before succumbing to your child’s desire for a phone. If you haven’t established a college fund, the kid shouldn’t have a cellphone. Don’t allow your child to talk and text away money that could help pay for tuition, or at the very least buy textbooks.

Now, let’s talk about rules for using cellphones.

The Verizon survey also found that just 37 percent of parents have established phone rules for their kids, and one in five hasn’t discussed safety guidelines.

Before our high-school-age daughter could get a cellphone, she had to sign a contract with the do’s and don’ts of cellphone use. When we are together as a family for shopping or meals, at the movies, in restaurants or church, there’s no texting or talking. The point of this rule is to communicate with the people in your presence. There’s no talking or texting after 10 p.m., and she has to keep up her grades or the phone is taken away. We have the password to her phone, and now and then we make unannounced checks for any inappropriate texting or calls from people we don’t know. Her contract stipulates that she has to immediately hand over the phone for the periodic checks.

Especially for kids, a cellphone is less a safety net than a toy to be played with and used to annoy others. If people — that is, parents — were really buying phones for safety reasons, there would be no reason to have a plan for them that allows for texting or access to the Internet and the iTunes store. You could get your kids no-frills phones with prepaid minutes and hand it to them only when they are going to be someplace without you and without supervision from another trusted adult. Their calls and text messages would be short and mostly made to parents.

We’ve never expressed or pretended my daughter’s cell is a need. It’s not. So, if you give your children cellphones because they’ve nagged you until your eyes bulged, then simply own up to the fact that it’s largely just a fun gadget.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C.20071; or e-mail: singletarym@
washpost.com
. Personal responses might not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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