Should kids have cellphones?

Teaching children to understand the responsibility of a cellphone

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When Tristan Mills (now 14) was 11, his big sister passed her cellphone down to him. Truth was, his mother Jean Mills says, it was cheaper to give the phone to Tristan and keep it on their plan than to terminate the contract.

But that gift came with restrictions. “We told him the phone was to be used only for contacting us and for emergencies,” says Mills. “We explained about the costs of calls and texts, and how easy it is to forget how much things cost.” Since their normal routine was that Mills would pick her son up after school, having the cellphone helped on those days when she was running late, or Tristan had an unexpected after-school activity.

Tristan has impressed his parents by sticking to the rules. “Well, he did once text me that his friend got a puppy,” says Mills. “Tristan is the kind of kid who understood right away that having his own cellphone was a privilege.”

You’ll hardly see a teen these days who isn’t busily texting friends or chatting on her phone. Naturally, preteens want them too. But is a cellphone a good idea for your child? Maybe — but not without some careful consideration, says Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a professor of educational psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “You need to ask yourself if a child this age really needs a cellphone. Will it have a real function?”

Preteens should generally be under adult supervision, so the safety value of a cellphone is small, she feels. “And my experience is that a lot of kids this age lose their cellphones. So you have to consider what level of responsibility your child needs to demonstrate before getting a cellphone. For example, if half of her winter wardrobe is in the school lost and found, she is probably not ready for one.”

Cynthia Waiz, the mother of four daughters including 11-year-old Tavia, says her concern is that cellphones can give a false sense of security. “I see parents drop their kids off at the mall with a cellphone and assume that means they’ll be safe,” she says. “But having a phone doesn’t mean the child will think to use it if something happens. The problems a child out on his own might run into are not solved by having a cellphone. The phone is not a substitute for being there.”

In some situations, though, a cellphone can have real value. Ruby Carlisle* gave her now 10-year-old son, Ty, a cellphone when he was eight. She’d originally bought the phone for her mother, who decided she didn’t need it, but Carlisle decided it could be useful for Ty when he went for weekend visits with his father. “He uses it to call or text me, usually before he goes to sleep or whenever he feels like he needs to be in touch with me,” she says. “He doesn’t use it much, but he likes the idea of having it.”

“A situation like that — when a child is staying with another parent — is a good example of a time when a cellphone can be helpful,” says Schonert-Reichl. The phone provides a reassuring backup system in case of mix-ups about pickup times or plans, and allows the parent and child to communicate without having to go through the other parent.

Schonert-Reichl mentions another time when cellphones can help: “My own son, who doesn’t have his own, often borrows my cellphone when he goes for a sleepover at a friend’s, so he can call before he goes to sleep without having to ask to use the family phone. Even if he doesn’t actually call, it makes him feel better to know he can.”

As other parents have found, Carlisle feels that setting out the guidelines for cellphone use right from the start is important. “Ty did download a game without my permission earlier this year,” she says. “I found out only when the bill came. I pointed out to him that these downloads are not free and reminded him that he has to ask permission before downloading anything.” She plans to take the cellphone away temporarily if it happens again.

*Names changed by request.

Preteens can be under considerable peer pressure if many of their friends have cellphones, Schonert-Reichl adds, but parents can see that as an opportunity for a discussion, not a reason to cave in.

“This is a great age to start having those conversations about consumerism and whether having the latest gadgets or most fashionable clothes is really what’s important,” Schonert-Reichl says. And no, you don’t want to text them about it.

Walking and talking?

One perhaps unexpected hazard of cellphone use is pedestrian injury. A 2009 US study arranged for 77 children aged 10 and 11 to repeatedly cross the street in a virtual-reality environment. They had cellphones during half of the street crossings and carried on conversations with an unfamiliar research assistant. The findings: All the children were distracted by the cellphone conversation, were less attentive to traffic, and experienced more collisions and close calls with oncoming traffic.

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