A Cellphone for Christmas?

Featured Article, Growth and Development, Parenting Styles

A recent survey found that most American children have a cell phone by the time they turn 7 years old. The average age of a first-time cell phone owner is 6 years old, with 53 percent of American children owning a cell phone before their 7th birthday.

Parents taking part in the survey also identified the following devices as being owned by their children:

  • Cell phone – 96%
  • TV/sound system – 83%
  • Tablet – 75%
  • Handheld games console (e.g. Nintendo DS) – 71%
  • eBook Reader – 65%
  • Game console (Xbox or PlayStation) – 51%

When asked to estimate how much their child’s gadget collection (items exclusively theirs) cost, the average answer was $462 per child.

It’s obvious why kids have gaming consoles or e-readers. Kids want to play, explore technology and/or read. But toting around their own cell phone isn’t always as cut-and-dry.

The majority of parents participating in the survey said they purchased their child’s phone for security reasons, so the child could remain in contact with parents. Twenty five percent bought their child a phone for kids to keep in touch with friends and family, while an additional 20 percent said the purchase was for a child to keep up with their friends at school.

Asked about the risks and dangers of digital independence, 74 percent of parents confessed that they felt “concerned” when they first purchased a cell phone for their child, with 46 percent of these installing parental filters and monitors prior to giving their child the device in order to keep a watchful eye on their usage.

But not everyone is sold on the notion of buying kids a cell phone.

“This cell phone stuff is just crazy,” says Stephanie Ward, development director, Galaxy Counseling in Garland, Texas, and mother of two children ages 10 and 11. “My kids both try to make me feel bad because they don’t have a cell phone.”

Ward has rejected the notion in order to preserve family time.

“My 12-year-old stepson has a $700 cell phone that he plays with all weekend. He doesn’t interact with the family until his father takes the phone away,” she says.

Ward did purchase a prepaid phone for her 11-year-old so she can communicate with her daughter when she’s not home. But even that was problematic.

“She was sneaking up late at night calling boys. I took the phone and told her that was a clear sign that she was not ready. Now I make my children use the house phone so that I can hear everything they are doing and saying.”

Should a phone be in your child’s stocking?

Jephtha Tausig-Edwards, M.D., a clinical and supervising psychologist in New York and Massachusetts is frequently asked about age-appropriateness and technology.

“Parents, teachers and children themselves ask about how to determine and enforce limits and what’s reasonable,” she says.

Tausig-Edward says these guidelines will help you determine if your child—and household—is ready for a new cell phone this Christmas.

Determine boundaries. Before purchasing the phone, or even agreeing to purchase one, decide what you will and will not allow. “Consider texting at the dinner table, surfing the internet freely, posting photos online and gaming on a school night,” she says.

Knowing your rules ahead of time helps you be prepared to enforce them when these issues come up. “And they will come up,” says Tausig-Edward. “I usually recommend that starting in middle school and at least by high school, fun time with technology be limited to non-school nights and on weekends, once homework is completed.”

Keep the lines of communication open. If your child already knows he or she can come to you if they experience difficulties in other areas of their lives, then they are much more likely to do so if something goes awry in their technological world like bullying, impersonating, or cyberstalking.

Know there’s no real anonymity. Your child’s not ready for a phone if he or she doesn’t know and fully understand this, says Tausig-Edward. A good rule of thumb is stressing the child should never post pictures, send texts or make statements online that he would be embarrassed to show his grandmother or great aunt. “Kids also need to know that any picture, text, etc., could be passed on. So if they don’t want it on the front page of the newspaper, they shouldn’t hit ‘send.’”

Apply basic safety rules. At first, you may want your child to use the phone in common areas of the house or to restrict data usage (to control the amount of web surfing) to certain times of the day and/or sites. “Before receiving a phone, kids also need to know they shouldn’t open attachments from unknown sources, click on links received in emails from unknown people, install virus and firewall software or update software on a regular basis,” says Tausig-Edward. You should schedule any updates you want applied to the phone to occur automatically to maintain the technology while preventing an expensive virus snafu or malfunction.

As always, trust your gut. If something does not feel right, don’t allow it. “If you have questions or are concerned, reach out to those who can help like other parents, teachers, school guidance counselors, school administrators and technology specialists, psychologists, and other health professionals,” says Tausig-Edward. “Technology itself is neutral. It’s what we do with it that matters.”

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