Should pre-teens have cell phones? My 10-year-old thinks so.

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.

Natasha's treatise, page 1

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.

Natasha's treatise, page 2

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.

24 thoughts on “Should pre-teens have cell phones? My 10-year-old thinks so.

  1. There was a horrific accident a few weeks ago near where I live.  A little girl, aged 11, ran across a busy intersection while talking on her cell phone, was hit by a car, and died.  I also have a 4th grader and our policy is cell phones when the kids reach high school, no sooner.  Tough love….

  2. Fantastic and open and honest post!

    I applaud your decision for all and exactly the same reasons you site, additionally, for me, i believe navigating the real world without computer human interface augmentation with always on and always connected gadgets at the pre-teen years (for sure) is a vastly greater skill, socially, cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally, than learning to navigate it vis a vis computer and digital reality augmentation – a skill that can be picked up anytime and very rapidly, while dealing with human beings, the non-digital social context, interpersonal non-digital interaction, and developing a style and mastery in relationships, relating self to the other, is fundamental and critical at pre-teen through teen years.

    The ease, convenience factor, and time sink distraction of learning and mastering and being entertained by digital navigation of the digital and real world, managing digitial social context, and digitally created, augmented, or sustained relationships, detracts from the core skills needed for IRL (In Real Life) living.

    And, I should add, I am no Luddite, I have been a professional programmer, senior level IT executive at global 100 enterprises, a CTO at two Venture Capital backed start-ups in MASS, and make my professional living writing code and managing engineers.

    I can not overstate the case that while success in our contemporary digitized complex csociety operating as a knowledge worker at the intersection of human, socaila, and computer mediated reality are seessential, being and becoming effective as a total human being through non-digitally mediated interaction with other human beings, social groups, teams, and navigating the complexitities of international and cosmopolitan cities through direct real life interaction and engagement is fundamentally of greater and foundational importance.

    An excellent and timely piece whose “smallness” and specificity belies a deeply profound subject and your treatment of it deserves the most serious consideration for all parents and peer members of our ever complex Western society as we all and individually engage the fundamental challenges of how to organize ourselves and our society in relation to fostering continued human growth and development across all segments and sectors of society in an effort to gain greater capacitires for empathy, cibvial communication, trespect of difference and background, and how we can best facilitate participation in the public sphere – be it the difgital town meeting or the “in real life town meeting” popuilated not by digital avatars, but by real breathing, thinking, feeling human beings.

  3. My daughter is also 10 and would love a cell phone. We also said no, maybe in Middle School but doubtful. She has an Ipod touch and can be happy with that.

    1. You guys are like overprotective, I am 10 now and this is the 3rd phone I had! I got my first phone when I was 6! And not for emegancy, I use mine to text my friends. And not call my mum ( thats just down right strange!)  

  4. I’m a father and grandfather I think if you have a child that acts as mature as this one to at lest sit down and write a lettermatbe she should have a limited ues cell phone.There are plans that don’t allow texting so she must talk to people.Also she could earn minutes by doing chores.This is just my thoughts and each parent must make their own minds up.

  5. My daughter is 12 and has a cel phone but myself it shows her responsiblities! If you daughter wants to be “cool” like her friends have you thought of maybe gettin her a pay as you go phone? And if she needs minutes on her phone she can do house chores to earn $ for the minutes? I always think what if something happens n they need to get ahold of someone in case of emgerancy situations!!! Yes her school is minutes away but don’t you think anything can happen? Give her ground rules while in school phone is turned off! My daughter has hers everywhere she goes @ school she has it off! Show her responsibliities! Maybe after that she may not like havin “ground rules”and may lose interest in havin a Cel phone! Good luck on this

  6. My twelve-year old daughter and fourteen-year-old son still do not have cell phones.  However, we will probably get a new plan so that we can be in touch with our son for pick-up at his new school in the fall.
    My daughter has used my cell a good deal to talk to her friends, although they are disoriented when they call the number and get me instead.
    I think you should stick to your guns and not give her one until MUCH later (as long as you can hold out).  It is a good lesson to learn how to survive without everything that “everyone else” has.

  7. I got my first cell phone when I  made the honar roll every time i got my report card if i were to get worse then a B the i would loss my cell phone until my next report card.I use my cell phone a lot to get ahold of my parents and sometimes they wont answer from someone elses phone.I would get here a cheap phone from cricket witch you get unlimited everything for a cheap price . I would give it to her if she can keep her conceentration in should and listens and behaves at home

  8. My 11 year old is starting 6th grade in the fall. I am considering buying her a phone depending what activities she is planning in the fall. I guess its a wait and see approach to find out if she really needs one. I have a feeling that she will be using it mostly to text her friends, so I am waiting as long as possible to avoid buying her one.

  9.  I believe there are many deciding factors to the answer. One big factor obviously is maturity level. My 13 yr old may not be as mature as your 13 yr old and having such a big responsibility may not be the best decision. However a big deciding factor is i know where i live its not a very safe area. My kids walk to and from school and have told me about many suspicious people being seen riding around the school on occasion. Its a fact preteens and teens have been saved by their cell phones. I have one prepaid cell phone for my children which they only get to use if we are out and they want a little away time from mom and dad. Maybe start small. Get her the prepaid and allow her to earn the money for the mins but limit the times and things she can do. Say she takes it to swimming practice but tell her she is only allowed to call you when she is done or if its an emergency other wise she will have her privileges revoked. Cells phones can be dangerous but they can also teach your child responisbility and help them mature. I think its best to use your judegment wisely.

  10. Apart from “sexting”, a parent needs to be concerned about giving a child unfettered access to the open internet

  11. My 7yo son recently asked me for a phone. I said no, of course. He then asked, “Mom, when did you get your first phone?” I said when I was 25. He walked away looking a little deflated. I expect this won’t work all that much longer, so I appreciated this well-reasoned response. Also, I am not depriving him of technology. He uses my computer and even tablet (under close supervision and using Norton Family). I don’t let him play with my phone, though I show him things on there from time to time.

  12. I always enjoy reading your common sense articles! I do agree that the younger kids just do not have the “need” for cell phones! It is a shame, in my thinking, that so many parents are caving in and allowing them at younger and younger ages. Kids are able to start texting and having even more distractions when they really do not have the mental ability to handle them. (not that we adults should be texting, checking facebook, or other aps, when we are biking, driving, or even WALKING with our kids!) THis electronic age robs kids and adults of SO much! It also presents a lot of possible dangers! Yes, there are the good sides when a parent may be able to check up on a child (when there is signal, when the child has a phone charged and it is answered and not turned off!) My son was medically complex and had his phone by late middle school I think. It was not a perfect answer for him for all the listed reasons! It raised our anxiety many times when we could not reach him! He even had a seizure while out with friends one time and they “forgot” that they were supposed to call us! Waiting has its advantages! THere are always rules such as “call when you get there” Use a HOUSE phone. Learning patience is a valid reason to teach our children that maturity and responsibility are worth waiting for the cell age as well! 

  13.  i see no real reason to give any kids a cell phone.My 13 year old asked me for the same thing and here are the top 3 reasons i gave him.

    1)i’m to cheap,as in i pay the bills and if i don’t have texting,www,ulimited yack time for friends then he isn’t going to get it either.

    2)he could lose the phone,just like he looses his dog’s leash,his shoes,his ipod,which he still hasn’t found(5 months and no luck),and many other things.I don’t like paying for things just so he can through them around,loose them and some kind soul come along,find it,make calls on it and run up my cell bill.

    3)i’ll let him have one when he gets a job and pays me for every call,text,or tweet thingy that he makes,oh and when he can afford a replacement for the one he will surely loose.

  14. They make phones, and build plans exactly for this problem. Your child gets a phone so she can call you but it is severely restricted. You can only call 3 phone numbers, and as the parent, you can set the limits of what she can do, such as no texting between school hours. At a minimum, she gets a phone that allows her to do everything in her treatise. You get the convenience of those calls, and piece of mind that she isn’t violating the schools’ rules. As she is able to prove herself capable of such a responsibility, you can give her more and more privileges. Does a 10 year old need an I-phone or Black berry, no probably not. but a basic phone with a basic plan to accomplish what she and you desire? Why not. Perhaps when she is in middle-school or high school, you can upgrade to a “normal” phone.

  15. she should not have a phone beacuse who is she going to text and ring i bet  most kids in her class dont have a phone so whats the point,
    only give your kids a phone when they start high school or start to walk to school by their selfs

  16. Im ten but I had one since I was six! I also make straight a’s. The problem is I don’t get a signal..we will be switching soon!
    Ps don’t ever get track phones !

  17. I, too, received a treatise from my 10-year-old daughter on why she should have a cell phone.  I, too, told her she would be waiting.  Part of my reason is that she is still developing in terms of learning how to effectively communicate in person and becoming able to interpret the nuances of facial expression and body language that are part of human interaction.  I want her to have as many opportunities as possible to fine tune this kind of communication before she spends time talking or texting on a cell phone instead of walking across the room or around the corner to talk to a friend in person.

  18. I’m 40 and still don’t have a cell phone. Somehow, I have survived even though I (gasp) commute to the Big Bad City by public transit and (gasp) walk home alone at night. It’s called being aware of your surroundings and being a black belt. It’s a lot easier to be aware of your surroundings without a phone in your ear.

    Crime is at an all time low right now. My kids are not going to disappear off the face of the earth if they go to a friend’s house 10 minutes away without a cell phone. They can (and have, at ages 10 and 11) ride their bikes 15-20 minutes to school and back with no cell phone and no problems. If they get to the point of wanting a cell phone, they’re going to have to pay for it, because I won’t.

  19. What if she is stalked by a person who wants or likes children, she’s scared, but dose not have a cell phone to call anyone and she is no where near a pay phone or friends house…then what Parents??? she get’s taken, by the stalker! I am sorry but in today’s world Kids 11 and older should have a phone for emergencies….there are special phones that you can buy that Numbers can be programed into that will call out by pressing 1 button even 911, Home Daddy Mommy or to who ever. And YOU CAN”T TEXT!!! So Not giving your child a phone can more disastrous. I don’t agree with the parents

  20. I think that kids over 10 are allowed to have phones only if they agree to be responsible with them and they dont make bad decisions with them. Parents must also know when to take their phone away. A phone can get addictive as long as parents talk to their child first. 🙂

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