Family Life


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Should you get your tween a cell phone?

Pro Cell Phone by Lisa Bendall

According to a 2014 MediaSmarts survey, a quarter of grade four students and half of grade seven students own a cellphone. Our daughter was among them. We gave Emily her first cellphone when she was 11. It was a basic phone with a basic plan. No fancy apps or games. And while our daughter was thrilled, we didn’t consider the phone to be a toy or special treat. Rather, we saw it as a helpful tool. 

Parents of kids who are rarely unsupervised and are driven everywhere may view a cellphone as an extravagance. They’re probably right. But my city child was starting to walk to school alone, and was taking public transit to her extracurricular activities. Her phone became an important means of communication. Emily could alert me when she’d arrived safely or was going to be home late.

Providing a phone meant setting boundaries. We established rules for when and where the phone could be used, and how to keep it safe from theft and breakage. Emily had no access to social networking sites, but we discussed other issues, like unknown callers and cyber-bullying.

Naturally, I’d heard the buzz around potential health hazards. But health authorities, including the World Health Organization and Health Canada, are in agreement that so far there’s no convincing evidence of risk from the low-level, non-ionizing radiation of mobile phones. It’s a moot point anyway, since my kid and her friends use their phones for texting, not calling.

If my daughter had wanted a phone purely for social reasons, we might have waited until her teens to allow one. But as she began venturing out into the world, it was comforting – and convenient – to know that I was always just a text message away. – Lisa Bendall

Con Cell Phone by Sara Curtis

Like most 11-year-old girls, my daughter would like a cell phone. (For that matter, so would my nine-year-old son.) And like many parents, we’ve made it clear that’s not going to happen anytime soon. From the first time the question was raised, we told them we wouldn’t even consider it until they got to high school. It’s not that we’re anti-technology. The kids use the laptop and the iPad, they have iPods that can be played on their docking stations, and we have both Wii and an Xbox. All these things are allowed in moderation in our household.

But we draw the line at cell phones. First, because they carry with them a number of dangers. Organizations such as purport that electro-magnetic radiation from wireless devices is harmful, especially for young children who are still physically developing. Personally, I have more concrete fears: that someone might steal the phone and hurt my child in the process, or that she might be distracted by texting or talking on the phone, and walk into oncoming traffic.

School-aged kids are not alone enough to justify a cell phone as a safety measure; my two walk to and from school together (a journey of about five minutes each way), and that’s pretty much the only time they are out of my sight. On a couple of occasions my daughter has walked to the library at the end of our street – in those cases, I gave her my own cell phone to call home if she needed to.

But I think the most important reason for holding off on giving my kids cell phones is that I love looking at their faces too much … it’s too soon for them to disappear into the head-down vortex of texting, games and face time. There will be plenty of time for that. For now, they’re still kids. And they need to face their childhood head-on. – Sara Curtis

Sara Dimerman, psychologist and ParentsCanada behaviour columnist, weighs in:

To stave off the potentially negative impact that cell phones have on families (from financial to social), parents often hold off as long as possible before buying one for their child.

Used wisely, cell phones can provide peace of mind for parents, acting like an electronic umbilical cord, but they are not a substitute for learning safety rules and street smarts.

A cell phone cannot protect your child from strangers, since it can easily be snatched away. In most situations, having a child check in when leaving school to walk home, for example, can offer a great deal of reassurance.

But for children, having a cell phone has less to do with safety and more to do with fitting in. Texting is their prime mode of communication when it comes to making social plans and social media sites are their way of staying on top of the latest happenings.

Not buying a cell phone for your child because you believe it will monopolize his or her time and create divisiveness within the family is a tough stance to take, but if you can get away with waiting as long as possible, all the power to you. Cell phones are very powerful influences to contend with.

As with most things, your own behaviour is key. Show your child that you can maintain control over your cell phone rather than it having control over you.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June/July 2014.

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