My 10-year-old daughter wants a cell phone. She wants it bad. So bad that the other night I came home to the note pictured below.
Her three older siblings got cell phones in middle school, when they began to routinely go places without us. But Natasha (who just finished 4th grade) wants one now. So she put together a treatise (you can’t tell from the picture, but it was on really big paper) about why she needs one.
The truth is, she doesn’t need one. Yes, she sometimes walks to and from school or bikes to friends’ houses. But since the school is about a seven-minute walk (we are always clear about whether someone is picking her up) and the bike ride is about five minutes, I think she can manage without a cell phone. While it might be nice to time pickup from swim practice, we’re actually reasonably good at figuring out how long it takes Tash to shower and get dressed (longer than is reasonable + 10 minutes). If we’re wrong, or there’s some sort of emergency, there are phones at the YMCA she can use.
This is what I told her the next morning, as she sat on the stool with her arms crossed, scowling at me. And then she burst into tears. “Do you know how hard it is,” she sniffled, “not to have one when all your friends do?”
Of course. The real reason. Cell phones are cool. Tash is all about cool.
According to a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation report, 31 percent of 8-10-year-olds have cell phones. The numbers have certainly gone up since then. So while I doubt that all of Tash’s friends have a cell phone (she has been known to use hyperbole to her advantage), I wouldn’t be surprised if a bunch of them do.
So why do I care? We’ve got old phones around the house.We have a family plan, so we’d just have to pay the monthly charge, which isn’t so much. She even co-opted my husband (Tash can be persuasive), who said he didn’t realize it was “a law of physics” that our kids got phones in middle school, and admitted to worrying about her whenever she is out of sight. It’s seductive, the ability to constantly monitor.
Here’s why I care. First of all, it’s not like Tash would only use the phone to call us. She would use it to talk to her friends. She would use it to text—that same Kaiser report said that the average 7th to 12th grader spends and hour and a half a day texting.
They text during school, even when there are rules against it. They talk and text as they walk (how many times have you had someone on a cell phone walk obliviously in front of your car?). They play games on them, watch TV, or surf the Web. It is a huge distraction. I don’t want Tash distracted like that.
It’s not just the distraction factor. Kids can get into trouble with texting. There’s the problem of sexting, in which kids send lewd or suggestive pictures of themselves to each other (which is a felony, as it’s distributing porn). Bullying happens via text. Messages that seem innocent, “just joking”, can end up having devastating consequences. Tash is a social Queen Bee, just the kind of kid who could get caught up in this stuff.
And there are health concerns. The World Health Organization says that cell phone use is a “possible carcinogen”: the low-level radiation cell phones emit could possibly increase the risk of certain brain tumors. Now, this is far from saying that cell phones cause cancer. But this kind of radiation, if it does damage, does it over years. The earlier you start using a cell phone, the more years of exposure. I don’t want to raise Tash’s risk of anything, let alone cancer.
We can set rules around her cell phone use, sure (interestingly, very few of the kids in the Kaiser report said that their parents set rules). But these rules are hard to enforce, and it’s hard for me to imagine Tash being careful to hold the phone away from her head.
For some young kids, cell phones truly do improve their health and safety. Kids with chronic and dangerous health problems, like diabetes or bad asthma, can use them to get help quickly. Kids who will be alone for more than brief periods (like those with a long public transportation ride to and from school) are safer if they can be in touch with a grownup easily. And for various reasons, some families need the ability to be in close contact. In these situations, the benefits outweigh the risks. In Natasha’s situation, they don’t.
I don’t know the right age for giving a child a cell phone. Maybe middle school is too early (more than two-thirds of 11 to 14-year-olds have them). Ultimately, families need to decide what makes sense for them. But as they do, I hope they think about the risks and downsides of cell phones. For some really helpful information about kids and cell phones, visit the website of the Center on Media and Child Health.
We did some serious thinking about those risks and downsides (it was the image of Natasha texting as she walked instead of watching for cars that changed my husband’s mind). Sorry, sweetie. You’re not getting one yet.