“Mom and dad, you are the ONLY parents of my friends who won’t let their kid get a cell phone! You are don’t trust me, do you?! You are being over-protective and unfair!” Well, it’s a good thing Bill Gates isn’t his dad (hmmmm…actually, not so sure about that...) because Bill Gates has heard all that from his own kids and still makes them wait, by today’s standards, a very long time to get a phone.
Today was a big day for me. As I was doing some research on the “right” age for kids to get a cell phone, I came across an interview with Bill Gates that made me feel much better about "torturing" my children by making them wait longer than the majority of their friends to get a cell phone. Bill Gates told Matt Lauer on the Today Show (very end of the interview) that the appropriate age for a kid to get a cell phone is 13. Yes, 13!
But as you can probably guess, Mr. Gates is most certainly in the minority. According to a 2010 National Consumers League survey, “Nearly six out of 10 (56 percent) of parents of “tweeners” (children aged 8-12) have provided their children with cell phones.
Over the past six months, my 11-year-old has launched a campaign to be included in the 56 percent. He has begged, pleaded, cried and added on to the above-referenced sales pitch, “Mom, Dad, I HAVE to get a cell phone! Every other person in my grade has one except for like one or two kids! I REALLY NEED to get one! PLEASE!! I will work to pay for it and will get straight A’s in school! I promise!”
It was not the first time I had heard this speech. He must have borrowed the script from his older sister and brother, who both gave us the same Oscar-winning performance when they were around his age. What I have come to realize over the years is that even though Mr. Gates mandates that 13 is the magic number for his kids and I too agree that waiting is better, this is a very complicated issue for parents and children.
The reality for kids today is that they do feel extremely desperate when it comes to owning a cell phone. They are either “in” or “out” of the ever-so-powerful cell phone club—a club that is not necessarily linked to money or status, as cell phones have become much more affordable for families. So why does this club have so much power? This power is about connection. Kids have an increasing, almost frantic need to be in constant contact with one another. And furthermore, the various forms of social media provide a multitude of avenues for kids to feed this somewhat addictive need.
Whether they are texting, face-timing, instagramming, facebooking or vining, they are connecting with one another at the speed of light. This power of communication and the instant, almost incessant connectivity with their peers keeps kids in the know. To be outside of this circle of knowing is a dreaded, isolated place to be.
All three of my children were probably one of the last of their friends to get a cell phone. My oldest was almost 13, second was 12 and now my third is 11 (and yes, we did cave, sorry Bill, but resisted getting him a smart phone). My youngest daughter, who is 8, is already starting in, “But I am going to have to talk to my sister when she is at college next year, and some of my friends already have them.” I remember when she was in kindergarten and a few of her 6-year-old friends had phones because both parents work and they wanted to be able to be in touch with their kids.
While I do understand that many parents purchase cell phones for their kids at young ages for safety reasons, and it is very convenient to be able to communicate with your kids via cell phone, I have been/am in no rush to make this purchase for my kids for a few reasons. One, we did not want to indulge our kids just because everyone around them is indulging or being indulged, we needed to feel that our kid was ready for the responsibility and that we were ready to give him that. The second and biggest for me is that I was/am in no rush to have them spend more time with their heads bowed, eyes focused downward and have them choose to connect with the screen they are holding in their hand instead of making eye contact with the people who are physically around them. No, I am not a big fan of this typical behavior exhibited by cell phone-bearing tweens/teens (and many adults, including myself sometimes). I am happy to report that even though we did allow our 11-year-old to have a phone, he is not really that into it (yet), does not carry it around with him all the time and actually often forgets it at home. My teenagers...well, that is an entirely different story!
I want to say to them and to their teenage counterparts, "Hey kids! Disconnect! Look around you! Look up at sky! Look at people in their eyes. If you want to talk to someone, call him or arrange to meet her in person!" The Pew study found that half of 12- to 17-year-olds sent 50 text messages a day (I think this number is probably much higher now) and texted their friends more than they talked to them on the phone or even in person. To me, this is sad and I wonder how this is affecting our children’s ability to talk to other people in person, face-to- face, eye to eye.
As parents, no matter what age we decide to give our kids a cell phone (and there is no real right or wrong). we can continue to emphasize the importance of in-person communication and to limit their time with and their dependence on their phones. Here are a few simple rules that I try to enforce with my kids:
1) No phones in the car. Let’s talk to each other.
2) No phones at the dinner table. Let’s talk to each other.
3) We keep my younger son’s phone charger in the kitchen so he leaves it there to charge when he goes in his room to study or to sleep.
4) If and when I feel that they (or I) need a BREAK from their cell phones, I simply say, “Hand it over, please.” (Sometimes I forget the "please.")