Kids want cell phones! The lure of unlimited text messaging, stylish faceplates and even built-in radios is immense. But should your child have one?
Teenagers are today’s fastest growing group of cell phone consumers. The Yankee Group, a Boston-based consulting firm, reports that by 2005, nearly 70 percent of teens will have a cell phone, up from the 35 percent reported in 2000. If these statistics hold true, the percentage of teenagers with cell phones will be greater than any other group in the general population.
While statistics like these indicate that families are embracing the new technology, another emerging school of thought urges parents to carefully consider whether or not a kids are ready for the responsibility of a cell phone.
Answering Family Needs
The majority of parents who purchase cell phones for their children cite security in an emergency as the main reason. Cell phones played a major role in getting information to families during the tragedies of Columbine and Sept. 11, and many parents took these incidents as a cue to invest in cell phones for their teens.
Another top reason given by parents is car safety. Already leery about first-time drivers, many find comfort in giving teens a cell phone – “just in case.”
Convenience adds to the lure. It’s easy for kids to let Mom and Dad know they are running late with a cell phone.
For Helen Brown, it was a far more common family problem that was solved with cellular service. A cell phone helped to free up her main phone line. Her 16-year-old daughter Samantha was tying up the family phone line for social calls and instant messaging on the Internet. A cell phone gave Samantha a new way to contact her friends.
Brown admits that safety plays a big role. “I like it because I know where she is and where to find her. I also feel that the phone is a safety issue, especially since Sam started driving,” she says.
Putting Plans on Hold
With convenience comes responsibility, and not all teenagers are ready for the challenge. Some professionals feel that handing a teenager a cell phone may add to the already secretive lives of many teens, and it may invite trouble. Skipping school, making drug deals and planning clandestine meetings with friends can all be organized on a cell phone without Mom or Dad knowing.
Child psychologist Susanna O’Hara, Ph.D., urges parents to view the cell phone as a safety net for adolescents and to set up rules for its use. “If a child is on a sports team and will be traveling, I think it’s a good occasion to have a cell phone. If the teen will be spending the night at someone’s house or if a teen is driving with a new license, I think it’s a good occasion to have a cell phone, too,” she says.
“I don’t think there should be unlimited use, because there’s a lot of temptation. A parent might not know who a child is talking to or who may be calling the child. It takes so much discipline to use it properly,” she notes, “and not all (teens) have it.”
Are Parents Prepared?
As parents, we must also look at our own behavior and not develop a false sense of security about our children. Where once Mom might have turned down a teen’s request to go with friends to the mall, movies or the local pizza parlor, she might now be more willing to allow it, thinking the phone will keep everyone connected. The teen, then, might venture farther from her common circles with a cell phone in hand.
Another concern is personal time together will be replaced with cell phone calls. A quick call might give a sense of connectedness but may reduce the time spent together as a family. It takes discipline on everyone’s part to keep cell phones from replacing quality time.
If you like the idea of instant access with your teenager but aren’t comfortable providing a cell phone, there are alternatives.
Install a toll-free line. “I like this solution because any family can get an 800 number put onto their main phone line,” says O’Hara. Call the local phone company and ask about various packages offered with toll-free service. Some plans provide toll-free calling for local areas, while others furnish service for all 50 states. You can modify your plan to suit your needs. With a toll-free line to your home, your child can call from any phone at no cost. In addition, your bill will list the source of each incoming call.
Add a second phone line. If your teenager’s tying up your phone line, this is an affordable solution. O’Hara also suggests replacing cordless phones with corded counterparts for teenagers who seem to be engaging in an unusually high amount of private calls. This will keep your child from venturing to remote locations while on the phone.
Consider a family cell phone. Some families have one phone for the entire family used on an “as needed” basis. Larger families may want to consider more than one phone. “The phones should be kept in parental control until needed,” says O’Hara.
Set Rules for Cell Phone Use
Once you hand a cell phone to your child, you should take time to lay the ground rules. As with most things, let common sense guide you. But despite how obvious many of these rules seem, it helps to repeat them before a cell phone is in hand.
- Do not talk on the phone while driving. Be clear that a phone in the car is for emergency use only.
- Turn the phone off during school hours. Most schools have rules that phones be off during class, and the penalties for phones in school can be rough. Be sure to ask about and review your school’s cell phone policy with your child.
- Keep the phone charged and in a safe place.
- Tell your child to leave the phone “on” whenever she has it. Brown notes that this was an unexpected hurdle to clear with Samantha. “It can be very frustrating. Here, you give your child this privilege and then the phone is turned off when you try to reach her!” she says.
- Don’t use the phone in places where it will disrupt others. Movie theaters and libraries, should be off-limits to cell phones. If the device has a vibration feature, switch to this silent alternative in such situations.
- Take the phone away if your child abuses the privilege. It can be difficult to remove a privilege as treasured as a cell phone, but it is necessary to have consequences for abusing such a privilege. If your child continually runs up excessive bills, loses the phone or disregards your rules, take it away.
- Be clear about how you want the phone to be used. If you only want your child to make emergency calls or to keep in touch with you, state so firmly.
If you go into this responsibility together and find middle ground, you and your child can come to an understanding about how cell phones will work for your family, and together you can come up with solutions that solve everyone’s needs in an affordable, comfortable way.
Mary Jo Kurtz is a freelance writer and mother of two, 13-year-old Sam (who is sure he is the only eighth-grader without a cell phone!) and 3-year-old Joey.
Keep Tabs on Your Teen
Using a GPS (Global Positioning System) and a secured website, uLocate Communications can help you pinpoint the whereabouts of phone users. Currently, the service supports specific phones on Nextel, T-Mobile, AT&T and Cingular networks. Visit ulocate.com for details.
“Selling” the Cell: Services That Lure Families
Wireless companies know that the fastest growing group of customers comes from the teen market, and they offer a variety of plans to entice families. Here are a few features to consider:
Pre-paid accounts: If you have concerns that your child will run up a large phone bill or exceed the set minutes of your plan, consider this option. Prepaid plans allow you to buy a set amount of minutes for your teenager.
Family plans: Ask about plans that tie your child’s phone service to yours. For a few extra dollars each month, you may be able to add a phone that shares minutes with your existing account.
Unlimited minutes: Plans with unlimited minutes in evenings or on weekends are great for high usage.
Special Offers: Free phones, upgraded minute packages and reduced or waived activation fees add to family-friendly packages.
Expect to be lured with other features that teens find attractive: These include text messaging, phones with hand-held games, colorful face plates and customized rings.