Should You Buy Your Child a Cell Phone?

Cell phones are in widespread use in our world.  Just look around wherever you go and you will see people of all ages talking on cell phones.  I often hear people saying “What would I do without my cell?”   I cannot even think of one adult or teen I know who does not have access to a cell phone.  So the question of “should I or when should I buy my child a cell phone?” is an excellent question for us to discuss.

Why would you want your preteen child to have a cell phone?
1)   Safety is the first answer that comes to mind.  The phone aids your child in being able to reach you in a crisis.  Knowing your child has a fast way to reach you is very reassuring for parents.
2)    Improving communication is a second reason to provide a phone for your child.  You will be able to keep better updated on what is going on with your child which can include the pleasant surprise of receiving a message about how your child is doing that day.                                                                                          
3)    Peer interactional style is a third consideration.  Our children are very advanced in their ability to use technology compared to us when we were children.  Many children are communicating with each other via text message and brief phone calls.                                                   

Three reasons to buy your child a phone should be considered:  safety, improved communication with family, and peer interactions.

What are the risks involved in purchasing a cell phone for your child and how do you minimize those risks? 

1)  Your child is at risk for becoming a target of an Internet predator or could be exposed to inappropriate material.  The risk of this occurs when your child has a cell phone which allows Internet access.  Providing a cell phone which does not provide Internet access would be a good way to relieve worries about Internet predators.  In addition, your child would not have access to the web to be viewing inappropriate material such as pornography.
2) Bullying via text messages could occur.  Educating your child about what would be appropriate text communications and what would not be appropriate could help minimize this risk.
3) Inappropriate texting from your child could occur.  Sexting – the texting of photos of parts of your child’s naked body to others – is a parent’s nightmare.  Having a discussion with your child about keeping private areas private applies to the Internet as well and could be used to teach your child about use of technology.

Now that you have considered benefits and risks of cell phone use for your child, should you consider anything else?  Absolutely!  The timing of your child having this access is so important.  Is your child developmentally ready to have this responsibility?  What age is the right age to allow use of a cell phone?  Although all children are different, the stages of development they move through are helpful guides for us to know when they are ready for different responsibilities.  Once your child has begun to develop a sense of rules governing his behavior, he is probably ready to take on this new challenge.  Middle school is a typical time in which a child can navigate appropriate behavioral rules.  However, limits must be placed on the use of a cell phone.  I would suggest the following:
1)  Do not provide a cell phone for a middle school child that has Internet capability.
2) Limit the use of the phone and have a method for checking your child’s cell phone use.
3) Review the text messages that your child sends and receives.
4) Develop a clear contract with your child – in writing – as to what you expect about his cell phone use.  Be certain to include consequences that will occur if the contract is broken.

Once your child is older and has become more advanced in his development, you can expand his use of his cell phone.  Be sure to review your “cell phone agreement” with your child when he is older and develop a new agreement.

Written by Debra Atkisson, M.D.

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