This essay, which argues against giving cell phones to young children, originally appeared as part of the “Debate Club” series in the digital publication Parent.co.
It happened nearly a decade ago: My third-grader had just climbed into the school bus and as I watched her take a seat from my spot on the sidewalk, I noticed another child gazing vacantly out the bus window as he chatted on a cell phone. Who’s on the other end of that call? I wondered. And what could possibly be so important that a 10-year-old needs a phone – at 8:30 a.m., no less?
I thought about that boy all day. While I could envision situations where it might be handy for a child to have his or her own phone – a kid is hurt or needs a ride home, a parent wants to convey an urgent message – I couldn’t find a way to justify purchasing a cell phone for a child that young. I still can’t.
As adults, I think we can all admit to a certain level of addiction to, or at least heavy reliance on, our phones. We use them for everything from calls and email, to maps and shopping. They make life infinitely easier. Though my husband and I were late adopters who didn’t succumb to mobile phones until the mid-2000s, I can no longer imagine trying to navigate life – both literally and figuratively – without a smart phone.
Sometimes, however, the convenience of phone ownership begins to feel more like a burden. There is stress attached to checking incessant call, text, email, and app notifications; monitoring data usage to avoid overage charges; and protecting devices from loss, breakage, and theft. Are those concerns kids need to manage while they’re still learning the ropes of life in elementary school? I don’t think so.
In addition to being unnecessary worries and distractions, cell phones are also viewed as status symbols, expensive devices that contribute to low self-esteem by highlighting the division between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” When she saw that boy on the bus with the cell phone in elementary school, my daughter immediately assumed he was wealthy and we were poor because she didn’t have a phone. In reality, cost didn’t factor heavily into our decision to postpone her phone.
While there are benefits to having round-the-clock access to our children, there is no realneed for it, especially during school hours. We all grew up without individual phones and our parents had no trouble getting messages to us in the classroom. School staff and teachers are still happy to communicate information between parents and their children. If you’re sending a friend to pick up your kid at school, someone from the office will let her know. If your child gets sick and needs to go home, the school nurse will find a way to get in touch.
When young kids aren’t at school, most parents know exactly where they are and all of those places – home, a friend’s home, after-school programs, sports programs, etc. – offer landlines and/or supervising adults with cell phones that children and their parents can use to communicate.
Some might consider withholding immediate access to parents or caregivers via cell phone as unfair or even cruel, but it actually allows children to think independently and become more self-reliant. If, for example, a student forgets his homework and his teacher won’t let him call someone to bring it to school, that’s unfortunate, but turning an assignment in late provides a valuable life lesson about responsibility and preparedness.
When should kids get cell phones? That’s obviously up to their parents, but in my experience, middle school seems to be about right. School work, athletics, and activity schedules tend to ramp up in middle school, and teachers, coaches, and program administrators begin relying more heavily on electronic communication. When my daughter played field hockey in eighth grade, for instance, her coach shared information through email and a team Facebook page. If after-school practice was changed or cancelled during the school day and my daughter didn’t have access to the internet, her only hope of getting that information was from a teammate with a phone.
There are exceptions, of course, but in general, I believe that giving mobile phones to grade-schoolers benefits adults, not children. Young kids may think it’s cool or fun to have a phone, but it’s unfair to try to alleviate our own parental anxieties by burdening our offspring with additional, undue stress and responsibility. I say we let children be children, as carefree and unencumbered as possible, for as long as we can.