Opinion: Your Grade-Schooler Doesn't Need a Cell Phone

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Grade Schooler with cell phone

Call it a day -- cell phones just aren't for kids. Credit: jupiterimages

Today's conventional wisdom seems to dictate that "cell phone" should be right there on the back-to-school shopping list along with markers, crayons and new shoes, but when did it become part of our cultural landscape to keep watch over our children 24 hours a day, even when they're in school?

A recent study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 51 percent of 12-year-olds owned mobile phones in 2008. In 2004, that number was 18 percent. When my generation was 12 years old, we were just figuring out how to manage the Betamax player and this crazy new technology called a "personal computer."

Not to mention the fact that our parents actually relied on the proverbial village to help us make it to adulthood. We were surrounded by responsible adults who weren't named "Mom" and "Dad." We also had teachers, coaches and our friends' parents to look out for us. And you know what? Our kids are surrounded by those people, too.

We did not need an electronic monitoring device, which is basically what a cell phone becomes when you hand it to a 12-year-old. And, frankly, I fear that handing my child a cell phone would open up a Pandora's Box of media exposure that I really wouldn't be able to contain.

Look at the data: Anne Collier, co-director of ConnectSafely.org told ParentDish in April that the average kid sends and receives somewhere around 2,000 text messages per month. That's approximately 66 text messages a day, and I'm guessing even the most vigilant helicopter parent can't keep track of an inbox that active. I know I couldn't.

So what, you say? Texting is just LOL and emoticons! Surely you've heard of this new trend called "sexting?" Sending nude or suggestive photos and provocative messages is more normal than not, and some teens are paying a very high price, indeed, for fleeting moments of poor judgment.

The messages can be sent around to their peers. They can be used as a bullying tactic. They could even land your son in jail, as one Rochester, N.Y., 17-year-old found out when he wound up facing nearly seven years in jail after he forwarded a nude photo of his girlfriend, then 15, to his buddies.

But this stuff can't happen to my fifth-grader, right? Or my kindergartner, or my second-grader. But it could, and that's the rub. The device may seem like a lifeline, a way to tether your child to you when he or she is out of sight, young and vulnerable to the big, wild world -- but plenty of kids see it as a portal to freedom.

Yes, we can put limits on their plans, restricting the number of texts and calls they can make and receive. Yes, we can get phones that are "for emergencies only." Yes, we can even invest in software that keeps track of their text messages, and filters them through our own phones.

But what message does that send? Sure, kid of mine, I want you to be independent and learn how to be responsible, but I'm going to watch your every move while you do it.

Even the product names are loaded with implied judgment, using words such as "watch dog" and "spy." I, like most teens, got up to my own particular brand of adolescent mischief, and my parents were much better off not knowing about it.

I, too, was much better off, for learning to handle those mistakes on my own.

It's difficult to send our small people out into the great unknown, to set loose these vulnerable, precious beings on whom we've spent so much time, energy and devotion. It makes my heart contract in ways I never knew possible to watch my child skip down the porch steps with her backpack on her very wee shoulders.

However, my own parents did the very same thing, without the aid of technology, and everything turned out just fine. We're telling our children that the world is something to be feared, rather than embraced. We are sharing with them our lack of trust in the inherent goodness of the human race, our desire to turn inward and hide away.

And that will eventually destroy them -- and us, too.

Related: Want to Win Custody? Become a Helicopter Parent

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.