Do cell phones make kids safer — or more vulnerable? Most parents get kids phones because they seem like a way to keep children safe and connected. After all, with a cell phone, your child can contact you whenever he needs you. Also, you should be able to reach your child (assuming, of course, that she hasn’t lost the cell phone, buried it in a backpack, lent it to a friend, forgotten to turn the ringer on, or decided to ignore it when it turns out to be "just you").
That reasoning might be have been valid when a cell phone was simply a phone. Today, cell phones can also take pictures, record and play video, download music, get TV reception, send Instant (IM) or text messages, play games, and visit websites. Obviously, having all these options in a portable device is seductive for young people. More than half of all teens now have cell phones, and the industry is hungrily eyeing their younger siblings.
Parents who give kids cell phones aren’t usually thinking about all these possibilities — but they should be. Phones that give kids access to text messaging or online capabilities open the door to every worrisome thing that can happen on the Internet. When kids access cyberspace on a home computer, parents can respond to threats such as viruses and predators by using protective software and monitoring the time kids spend online. With cell phones, the risks are the same — but supervision is much more difficult.
That may change in the future. One company has already introduced Firefly (www.fireflymobile.com), a miniature, lightweight phone that has just five keys so kids can make and receive calls only to numbers pre-approved by parents. At the moment, however, most phone companies don’t offer such options. While all this doesn’t mean children should never have cell phones, it does mean parents must think carefully about when a child is mature enough to handle all the perils and temptations that will be only a button away. Here are some issues to considered:
Health: Ever since cell phones were introduced, some researchers have worried about the electromagnetic fields (EMF) they produce. Holding a cell phone to the ear inevitably puts it close to the brain, and there’s disquieting evidence that EMF can cause physical problems. Recent research led Britain’s National Radiological Protection Board to issue a recommendation that parents not give phones to children under 8 and that they sharply limit usage for kids 8-13. (More information about the British guidelines and the studies that prompted them is available at www.nrpb.org/press/press_releases/2005/press_release_02_05.htm). In this country, the FDA has taken the position that there is no convincing evidence that cell phones are harmful. Still, parents with elementary-age children may want to err on the side of caution.
Cost: Before giving a child a cell phone, be sure he understands exactly what services you are willing to subsidize. For newbies, look for a plan that allows nothing more than phone calls. For teens who can’t live without text messages or IM, be sure to get a plan that has a flat rate. Review the monthly bill to confirm that your child is following your rules about when and how long the phone can be used. The bill should also list the numbers your child has called. Ask about numbers you don’t recognize.
Security: Many cell phones now include global positioning software. Some parents think of this as a plus because they can pinpoint exactly where the child (or at least the cell phone) is at any moment. Aside from the question about whether this is the best way to raise trustworthy kids, parents have to consider the fact that other people, including predators, can also use the technology to locate children.
The information on cell phones is also vulnerable, especially if your child has Internet access. Not only can hackers steal phone numbers, passwords and other personal data, they have also started to use cell phones to spread viruses. So far, few companies offer protective software, so tell teens to be wary about what they download as well as what they store on cell phones.
Mischief: Cell phones multiply the opportunities for misbehavior. Kids may be tempted to cheat on tests, send embarrassing photos, or make anonymous or harassing phone calls just because they can. Be sure your child understands that you’ll confiscate the phone if it’s used to break household or school rules. Remind your child — often — that the phone can’t be used to IM strangers or visit websites that are off limits on your home computer. Also, a game that’s too violent or a song that’s too raunchy for home shouldn’t be downloaded to the phone. Most importantly, teens should never use a cell phone while driving. The phones have been implicated in so many accidents that the National Safety Board is considering making it illegal for young drivers to use them.
Manners: Plenty of adults are having trouble figuring out the etiquette of cell phones, so parents shouldn’t assume kids know the rules. Among other things, point out that phones should be turned off in places where they will disturb other people, especially movie theaters, restaurants, churches and classrooms. Kids should also avoid prolonged or private conversations in settings where other people will be able to eavesdrop or forced to listen.
Giving a child a phone simply because it will keep her safe is a sweet but naïve idea. The truth is that cell phones put powerful adult options into the hands of young people, and it’s up to parents to be sure they are mature enough to handle them.