My husband and I were sitting on the couch chatting one night when my 11-year-old son’s phone buzzed. He’d left it on the table next to me, and a new text message glowed. My husband and I looked at each other thinking the same thing. Do we read his text messages while he is not in the room? Of course we did! Here was the exchange with a girl from school:
My son: “I have to break up with you.”
Girl: “Why? I really like you.”
My son: “Because my friend X likes you.”
Girl: “But, I don’t like him.”
My son: “I am just trying to be a good friend here. Also his dad is my coach and he told me his dad would bench me if I don’t break up with you and I really want to play ball this week. Sorry, but ball is more important to me right now than you are.”
Girl: “Fine. I will find another boyfriend. See you tomorrow. Have a good night.”
Besides the obvious fact that my son could use some sensitivity training, this made me think about a few things. Are these kids too young to have cell phones? Am I OK with this kind of texting? Is my child being insensitive since it not a face-to-face interaction, therefore easier not to consider others’ feelings? How often is he texting? Is he learning social graces this way?
I am frequently asked by patients, “What is the right age to get my child a cell phone?” According to a recent New York Times article 75 percent of kids 12-17 in the U.S. own a cell phone. Nearly 60 percent of 12-year-olds have one. I truly believe that whether to provide your child with a cell phone is a family decision that needs to be made on an individual basis. Developmental psychologists and child safety experts agree that there is not one age that is correct for all children.
Here are some things to consider:
- What is the maturity level of the child?
- What is the need for the phone?
- Will your child be responsible for it, keep it charged, and not lose it?
- Can your child follow your rules regarding the use of the phone?
Parents should begin by asking the child and themselves why the child needs a phone. Parents generally report their number one reason is for safety. They want to be able to reach their children at all times. In middle school kids begin to travel alone to school activities. Plans often change, and a phone makes it easy to notify parents.
For children, it is a different story. They cite social life and impressing peers as their main reason for needing a cell phone. They want to be able to communicate privately with their friends. A study by the Pew Research Center reported that 50 percent of kids 12-17 send at least 50 texts a day. Kids now text more than they talk. In fact teens sitting next to each other sometimes text instead of speak to each other. Is this ok?
It is important for children to learn how to communicate with each other in person. Will we see a change in communication skills in the near future? Will our children have a difficult time appreciating the subtle nuances of body language? These are important questions to ask ourselves.
More than 37 percent of teens in the U.S. access the internet through their cell phone. Parents should be very cautious about this. It is important to monitor what our children are doing on the internet. Unsupervised access can lead to further problems. Be very careful about the following: addictive behavior; cyber bullying; sexting; cheating on school work; loss of sleep due to late night texting; distracted driving by older teens.
Here are some helpful hints for setting limits:
- Limit minutes on the phone and restrict time of use.
- Discuss texting with your child.
- Dictate who your children are allowed to call or text.
- Understand and use the parental control tools on the wireless phone.
- Check the privacy settings of your child’s phone.
- Discuss with your child the consequences for abuse of the rules.
There is watchdog software that can be loaded onto the cell phone that will send copies of texts and photos to a parent’s phone. You might also want to visit the following helpful websites: Besmartwireless.com, GetParentalControls.org, wiredcops.org, mymobilewatchdog.com, wiredsafety.org, lingo2word.com.
Here are 3 simple rules to discuss with children regarding cell phone usage:
- Don’t send or accept inappropriate texts or photos. Remind your kids that once a text or photo has been sent, it is impossible to control what happens to it.
- Never say online what you would not say in person!
- Never give out personal information.
To emphasize the last rule, I will tell a personal story. Doing what experts recommend busy married couples do, I decided to schedule an intimate evening with my husband. I sent him a text message discussing our plans. Apparently, one of my family members had some cloud application loaded on our phones so that every text sent between family members went to ALL of us! (Pardon my tech ignorance here!) When I realized my children received my text to my husband, I was horrified! (Stay tuned for a future column on how to talk to children about sex.)