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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/22/2009

When do kids need cell phones? Maybe never

By Valerie Strauss

Usually on Thursdays The Answer Sheet’s Group of Moms discusses kid- and school-related issues. Today we are going to hear from Debbi Wilgoren, a mother of two and a Post reporter. We started talking the other day about kids taking cell phones to school, and she became so animated about the topic that I asked her to write down her thoughts. Do you agree with her?


By Debbi Wilgoren
There is no issue that gets me more exercised than the one that currently looms large in the life of my 6th grade daughter, and many of her peers: When is the right time to get a cell phone?

My preferred answer is age 16 or 17, when a young person hopefully is mature enough to use a mobile phone properly, independent enough to actually need it and earning enough money at an after-school job to pay for it. But given the ubiquity of cell phones among 7th graders and even elementary schoolers (at least those I see in our admittedly privileged slice of upper Northwest Washington), I worry that I will end up caving long before then.

Cell phones are distracting, dependence-inducing and disorganization-enabling. For adults too, but especially for kids. Not to mention socially isolating, expensive and, in my view, unnecessary.

The convenience for parents of being able to connect with their kids any time, any place, pales in comparison to the way these gadgets seem to crowd out important life lessons and daily experiences. And yet, to paraphrase ’tweens everywhere: "all the other kids have one"--or seems to be getting one soon.

Here are the reasons that, so far, we are not following suit.

Distracting: Cell phones are the modern-day equivalent of that shiny new quarter of 50-cent piece burning a hole in an eager child’s pocket. If you have one, especially one equipped with a keyboard, it practically cries out to be used.

I don’t think kids need or ought to be texting their family or friends to pass the time while waiting for a school bus to come, a movie to start or the checkout line to move. They don’t need to be lured into playing Brickbreaker or some other pass-the-time game while waiting for mom or dad to arrive after baseball practice.

Instead of tapping or dialing, I would much rather my daughter: talk to the friend sitting next to her at the bus stop; think about the day she’s just finished or the one that lies ahead; pull a book out of her schoolbag and read; or just daydream.

Yes, grown-ups -- including myself -- multitask on our phones and BlackBerrys. And it’s probably not good for us either. But we’re grown. We pay for our own cell phones, and we, hopefully, understand that they are not toys--even if we treat them that way sometimes. We’ve had our decades of downtime. Hopefully the lure of that experience is still strong enough that we put down the phone of our own volition from time to time. What will happen to this generation if they never do?

Dependence: The last thing kids need as they take small but important steps toward independence is the umbilical cord of a mobile phone.

I’m proud that if my daughter walks to the store to buy eggs, and there’s a choice of brown or white, she doesn’t need to call me--she can make the decision. If she can’t find the aisle where the yogurts are, she can ask the store clerk--he’ll know better than I will.

If we agree that I will pick her up outside the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda at 2 p.m., she needs to remember that and get herself there -- no calling or texting me to say she’s running late, or ask ’what was our meeting place again?’

And, if something really important comes up and she has to call? Use a pay phone -- there are still plenty out there. Or the phone in the school office or at a friend’s house.

Sure, it would make my life easier if I could reach my daughter at any time, to text a change of plans or last-minute grocery request. Yes, I would like to be able to call just to make sure she made it to her destination/didn’t get lost/remembered her sweatshirt if it’s cold outside/brought along her umbrella if it’s raining.

But does she really need me to hover like that--a level of checking-in I certainly never had as a child? Is it good for her? I don’t think so.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 22, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Parents  | Tags:  cell phones for kids  
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Comments

I'll agree with phones as a distraction, but take issue with whether dependence is a negative aspect.

I say this as a Mom whose children are nearly grown, so I'm not seeing them every morning. Be glad that your daughter calls to ask whether brown or white. It's a chance to talk with her. The teachable moments in our children s lives don't schedule themselves to coincide with parent's physical availability.

I want my kids to reach out to me over little stuff. It paves the way for them to bring the big stuff up with me.

Anything that connects me to my "babies" is a plus.

Posted by: RedBird27 | October 22, 2009 7:28 AM | Report abuse

Solidarity, Ms. Wilgoren! I live in upper NW DC, too, and my 13-year-old twin daughters (8th graders) don't have cell phones yet. They have long been the only girls in their private schools without cell phones.

And here's another reason to add to your list: our knowledge of who are kids are hanging out with diminishes greatly when cell phones enter the picture. We are completely cut out. When we were kids, if someone wanted to talk to us (boy or girl) they had to take the chance that Mom or Dad would pick up the phone. Manners had to be on display. Mom or Dad had some general idea of our social circle. Most of our homes had only one phone number, even if we had more than one phone. We couldn't talk for hours, even if we wanted to. I don't much care if my kids forget their sweatshirts or umbrellas. But I do want to know who's calling them. . . . particularly the boys!

Posted by: trace1 | October 22, 2009 7:40 AM | Report abuse

Here Here! I laugh a bit when my son uses the "everyone else has one" argument. So silly!

Here's my story: My 7th grader walks to school and back and doesn't have a phone. All of his friends (supposedly) have one. We told him that we might consider getting a pay-as-you-go plan with a Motorola Razr or something similar and he said, "no way! That phone sucks and doesn't even have a keyboard!" That was the end of story for us. No phone until he can help pay for it.

Posted by: Section315 | October 22, 2009 7:43 AM | Report abuse

Another observation. I went on a service trip to New Orleans with some middle schoolers a couple of years ago. As we toured the Lower Ninth Ward, complete with very insightful and educational commentary, I noticed a couple of 7th graders texting nonstop to their friends back in DC.

I thought to myself . . . the technology, in many ways, makes their world smaller. She would return to DC having learned precious little about New Orleans and the Lower Ninth. She was not in the moment, absorbing her surroundings, and could have been anywhere. Mentally, she was back in DC with her middle school friends.

I agree that keyboard is just too tempting for most of them, and they're not ready to resist the temptation. (The frontal lobe of the brain --impulse control center -- is not fully developed in middle schoolers, or high schoolers for that matter.)

Posted by: trace1 | October 22, 2009 7:53 AM | Report abuse

Here's how it goes in our house: "If everyone else has one, why do you need one? Should be plenty to borrow in a pinch."

Posted by: trace1 | October 22, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

DSD has a cell phone and rapidly went from only-for-emergencies to text-everyone. When she's with us we have a no-text rule -- she's here to spend time with her family, not text her "friends". As she increased her phone usage, her manners became unbelievable, so we're course correcting that one as well. I guess I'm officially old because I just don't understand how having a cell phone helps someone who doesn't know her own phone number or her address -- at 13! But, like almost everything else with her (mind you, I've loved her for years and get along great with her mother), it wasn't my decision, I just influence how it impacts my household.

Posted by: StrollerMomma | October 22, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Pre-cell phone, I used to spend a LOT of time double-parked waiting for my middle-schooler after various evening activities, or she would spend time in the cold, dark and wet, waiting for me to get there, sometimes alone, sometimes with another adult waiting for me to get there. Now I get a call that says "rehearsal's over, I'm packing up now" and I'm there before the building closes.

Because we live in a cell phone world, there are sharp start times, but no sharp end times. Sure, she could borrow someone else's phone, but when does it become mooching? As is, with pre-paid minutes she uses about 30 minutes a month, all to me.

Posted by: mom22 | October 22, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

The oldest (now 28) got one when she could pay for it. Despite massive whinging.

The youngest (20) got one when her brother (now 22) joined the Marine Corps.

Posted by: rmlwj1 | October 22, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

fr the article:

>...And, if something really important comes up and she has to call? Use a pay phone -- there are still plenty out there. Or the phone in the school office or at a friend’s house.<

No, there are NOT "plenty out there" of pay phones. They're being removed for whatever reason a lot of places. Might be that your daughter is stranded in a "questionable" area, or can't go to a friend's house or the school office has a no-phone call policy.

I work for a cell phone company, so I do know. Get her a phone, and restrict the numbers that she can make/receive calls from. It's very easy to do.

Posted by: Alex511 | October 22, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

"Yes, grown-ups -- including myself -- multitask on our phones and BlackBerrys."

So your children want to do what they see you do. It's not just other children that cause the "but everyone does..." mentality. A phone is just a phone. It's a tool, the appropriate use of which can be taught by example. You, as the parent, control the type of phone and the extent of service. The only phone in my family that allows texting belongs to my 20 year old, who pays his own way.

We raise our kids to be fearful of strangers, police are not out walking the streets, and payphones are a vanishing technology. How are children to ask for help? This is a new age. I could have used a cellphone as a child, when, after the first day at a new school, I got on the wrong bus and ended up miles away in a place I had never been before. I managed to get home hours later, but my mother was frantic.

Lay out clear rules of use, and get the simplest phone. It's just like teaching the value of money - start out small, and as needs and maturity increase, upgrade.

Posted by: leuchars | October 22, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

My daughter has had one since she was about 11, but now that she is 14 I'm really glad she has one. It's mainly a safety thing - she can contact me when she needs to be picked up and I don't have to spend time worrying about her waiting alone somewhere. It's also socially very important - ALL of her friends have cell phones. That's also very handy if she forgets to recharge hers, she can still call me, or can lend hers to somebody else in the reverse situation, so we all benefit. I think you should give high schoolers cell phones if you can afford to, with the caveat that they are always turned OFF during school time!

Posted by: sparrow5 | October 22, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I am obviously in the minority looking at these posts. I feel that my son is responsible enough to make decisions that have a greater financial impact than just buying eggs - being responsible with the phone and the potential charges associated with the phone. I already know he can handle the small stuff and wouldn't call me about it anyway. He has a phone not only for those emergency moments he might need to reach me...more importantly he has one because I trust him to be reasonable with it.
A final bonus side effect is that my son can now type really well. His typing has taken off because he texts with a phone that has a qwerty keyboard. What a difference it has made for school work - he prefers to type (and not just with his thumbs :-)) his homework when possible!

Posted by: mlmhoon | October 22, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I would like to add the view of a teacher. My wife teaches high school Science in a south AA county school. She gets very frustrated, loses valuable instruction time having to stop and ask some student to stop text messaging a friend, or whatever.

She tries to make Science an interesting, challenging and potentially rewarding class. But if some bored out of his/her head teenager can't make the effort to try to learn the whole class, one of them Special Needs students (I won't call them kids), loses.

She invests 60-70 hours/wk trying her best to transmit knowledge from one generation to another. She loses too much time taking disciplinary actions, much of it w/ kids texting or talking, in class, on cel phones. She spends additional hours calling parents, most of whom are thankfully for the calls and are very supportive. I don't know how many of her teanage students have lost their cel phone priviledges, but from what I hear it isn't enough.

I used to teach a the university level. Losing time to cel phone use costs them real money in lost information. When I taught cel phones weren't an issue, but I can tell you right now there is no way I would in any way tolerate this useless interference.

May I suggest parents who want to restrict cel phone use form an alliance w/ your offsprings teachers? You might find very willing allies!

Posted by: prosper772 | October 22, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I would like to add the view of a teacher. My wife teaches high school Science in a south AA county school. She gets very frustrated, loses valuable instruction time having to stop and ask some student to stop text messaging a friend, or whatever.

She tries to make Science an interesting, challenging and potentially rewarding class. But if some bored out of his/her head teenager can't make the effort to try to learn the whole class, one of them Special Needs students (I won't call them kids), loses.

She invests 60-70 hours/wk trying her best to transmit knowledge from one generation to another. She loses too much time taking disciplinary actions, much of it w/ kids texting or talking, in class, on cel phones. She spends additional hours calling parents, most of whom are thankful for the calls and are very supportive. I don't know how many of her teanage students have lost their cel phone priviledges, but from what I hear it isn't enough.

I used to teach a the university level. Losing time to cel phone use costs them real money in lost information. When I taught cel phones weren't an issue, but I can tell you right now there is no way I would in any way tolerate this useless interference.

May I suggest parents who want to restrict cel phone use form an alliance w/ your offsprings teachers? You might find very willing allies!

Posted by: prosper772 | October 22, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I disagree -- despite the fact that they are at a young age this is a new generation. Many parents would like to know where their children are and if they are well.

Posted by: dsw_457 | October 22, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Ok. I see that your daughter doesn’t have a cell phone. I understand that you're an adult, but there are a lot of plans out there so you can get the phone and the parental control. So I don't agree with the fact that you're trying to keep your 6th grade daughter from using one. You can get her a pre-paid phone and just use the sim card. You put the sim card in the pre-paid phone.

Posted by: brandon_quintanilla | October 22, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

We got cell phones for our children when they reached the age (13 or 14) that after school activities were abundant and they needed to arrange late afternoon transportation with us. We both work and are not easily accessible otherwise. It was for OUR convenience, not theirs, though of course they loved getting the phones. We put then onto a "family plan" we already had for the adult phones, so the cost was not huge. When they left for college, the cell phone became their college phone.

Posted by: Rochl | October 23, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

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