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Child Caring

Kids and cellphones: Making the right call

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / September 23, 2004

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In her perfect world, Deanne Peterson of Cambridge would hand out cellphones to her children on Friday night and collect them on Sunday. That way, she could stay in touch as Robin, 15, and Alex, 13, lead their busy weekend social lives, but do without the annoying way cellphones have of interfering with everyday life.

"Last night at the dinner table, Robin was checking messages while she waited for me to serve!" Peterson says of a recent meal time. No surprise, a discussion ensued in which everyone, dad included, agreed not to take calls during dinner. A couple nights prior to that, Peterson heard Robin's cell ring after Robin was already in bed. She took the call, too.

"It's just one more thing to deal with as a parent," she says, sighing.

As parents are increasingly legitimately concerned about children's whereabouts and safety, it would be foolish not to take advantage of what technology has to offer. As the mother of a newly licensed driver, I am grateful for the piece of mind the cellphone brings when my son calls to say he has safely arrived at his destination.

But cellphones raise thorny practical and developmental issues. The aggravation can begin long before purchase.

In the Fisher/Eiferman Brookline household, 13-year-old Bennett "is agitating for one like mad," says his mother, Fern Fisher. "I'm feeling a lot of pressure, but I can't think of a good reason why he needs one."

So far, she placates Bennett by giving him her cell on weekends. She also has family precedent on her side: daughters Julia, a college sophomore, and Reva, a high school senior, didn't get cells until the last year of high school when Fisher and husband Jack Eiferman agreed that not having one was a social disadvantage.

Deciding when to give a child a cell is largely a personal decision based on finances and circumstances. Peterson and her husband, Gary, regret giving Alex a phone two years ago, when he was 11. "Robin [who was then 13] was ready, so it was a fairness issue. I wouldn't do that again," she says.

Child-development specialists agree that cellphones are best reserved for the high school years, or for younger children if there are special circumstances.

"In middle school, cellphones are nothing more than a status symbol and a toy. Whose phone has the most bells and whistles? It's part of a troubling syndrome, where younger and younger children get their identity and self-worth from products," says Betsy Taylor, founder and president of the Center for the New American Dream (newdream.org), a nonprofit group that promotes wise consumption.

Giving elementary-age children a cellphone can interfere with healthy development. "Most of the time, parents say, `This will help keep you safe.' That backfires. It can make the world seem too scary," says Wheelock College early-childhood educator Diane Levin. Children under 8 "expect grown-ups to keep them safe. The idea that an electronic object is an adequate substitute is . . . confusing," she says.

Taylor says evidence is growing that immersion in video games, instant messaging, and other electronic pursuits at an early age contributes to hyperactivity and to rewiring of the brain. Levin says, "[Cellphones are] just one more technology that takes young children away from direct experience with the world." She worries that the younger they are when they get wired, the more habit-forming it becomes and the more disconnected they will be from others.

"When you see college students walk out of a classroom, the first thing they do is get on their phones, even if they're in a group," Levin says. It's a way not to be lonely, but it also distances students. Her bottom line? "Deal with electronic-age issues when you can't avoid them anymore, rather than bring them into a child's life long before you reach that point." Levin is author of "Remote Control Childhood?" (NAEYC).

Other issues of which parents may not be aware:

Cellphone bullying. Psychologist David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family (www.media family.org), is hearing stories from around the country of middle school students using a cell's text messaging and voice mail to harass each other or who use the camera function to circulate embarrassing photos. He recently heard of a 15-year-old who received 20 abusive messages in half an hour.

Cellphone cheating. While many schools prohibit cellphone use during class, text messaging can be done silently. "It's a breeze to text message test answers to your buddy across the room," says Walsh. "No teacher can [see] every student's lap."

Cellphone as popularity meter. It's not only acceptable but desirable to have your cell ring as often as possible, even if it interrupts you multiple times while you talk to someone in person. "Issues of popularity and politeness mix in a way that has never before been possible," says Walsh. What does this say to the peer whose presence is not as important as a cell call? What happens to patience? Civility? The ability to delay gratification?

The answers are more complicated than laying down rules, although some - turning it off at dinner, during homework, or while driving - may be appropriate as long as you negotiate consequences together and follow through. The most logical consequence: curtailed cell use.

Since the goal for adolescence is for a teen to take more responsibility for herself, Levin urges parents to be sure the cell is used to encourage that, not detract from it. "If you're the one calling her to say, `Where are you?,' you're doing all the work," she says.

Her recommendation is to have a series of problem-solving conversations. Whose job is it to make contact? How often? What about when there's no signal, or she's angry with you and doesn't answer your call?

Here's one discussion Levin had with her 20-something son when their conversations were interrupted as often as four times in 15 minutes:

"I notice when we're talking, I lose my train of thought because your cell rings. It ends up taking us longer to get to the point or I end up nagging you later because I forgot to make my point. How can we talk so we can get it over with, short and sweet?" He came up with the solution: Turning his cell off, or putting it on vibrate and not answering it.

Cost is another issue. Whose job is it to track minutes? What happens if he goes over his limit?

Deanne and Gary Peterson were shocked by a $495 July bill. Alex, it turned out, had used 517 billable minutes to download ringer tones and games, says Peterson, who vows to review bills with her children each month.

Right now, however, that's a moot point for Alex.

Unhappy with the basic cellphone his parents gave him at 11, he saved to buy a fancy one on which he could download songs for ringer tones. It cost $179. Weeks after he bought it in June, they were on vacation at the beach, Alex went into the water with the phone in his pocket, and, well, it wasn't pretty.

"Did he learn an incredible lesson?" asks Deanne. Time will tell. Right now, he's saving again.

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