Should You Get Your Tween A Cell Phone?

My oldest son, Sam, will be starting middle school in the fall (gulp). He has never once asked for a cell phone, but I already know that some of his best friends will be getting one by the time school starts. So it’s just a matter of time before I start hearing it from him: “But EVERYONE else has one!”

So Let’s Hear the Pros

I’ll admit he’s eventually worn me down on things like gaming devices, but I have a much harder time giving a tween a smartphone. Why? Well, a biggie for me is that it has the potential to open up a whole world of cyber danger. I panic just thinking about it.

However, there ARE families who have justifiable reasons for equipping their tween with some kind of phone (I didn’t say fancy smart phone–just “phone.”) What are their reasons for making the leap? I performed a (highly scientific) Facebook poll of 110 parents to find out. Here’s what I found to be the top legit reasons for a kid to have a cell phone.

  • Both parents work, and there is no house phone. They need to be able to get in touch with their child when he/she is home alone.
  • The child walks home from school and needs the phone for safety.
  • He/she is involved in after-school sports or activities, and the phone is needed to communicate time and transportation changes.
  • The parents are no longer married, and during visits, they’d like a way to contact their child that does not always require going through the ex-spouse; or, the child would like to call their other parent without always having to borrow the phone.
  • The parents have a “free range” kid who is allowed to roam the neighborhood, but the parents still want a way to call him/her back home when it’s time.
  • The child has their first job, like babysitting, and the parents need a way to get in touch with them while they’re away from home and on their own.
  • The child’s school is heavy on technology use, and an iPad is not in the family budget, nor is it as portable. (Note: most schools do have iPads for loan during prescribed technology periods, and work can be saved on a thumb-drive).

Is There Another Way?

A smartphone is expensive. The monthly fees are expensive. The insurance is expensive (and you know it’s going to get broken at least once). So what else is out there? Here are a few alternative options, which may embarrass your child with their “uncoolness,” but may be a better fit your budget and/or comfort level. Consider one of these mortifying workarounds:

  • “Dumbed Down” Mobile Devices – Mobile devices without data capability are few and far between but they do exist. Pre-paid models with just voice and text like the Alcatel OneTouch Fling and the Alcatel OneTouch Retro are generally available for about $20 plus the cost of the pre-paid plan.
  • GPS Tracking Watches – These handy, dandy little tracking and communication devices fit around your child’s wrist, and just like a regular watch, they tell time. Unlike a regular watch, they can allow you to track your child’s whereabouts (through a proprietary app); to call your child; text your child; and set up alerts when your child has crossed over predetermined boundaries. Just as you can call and text your child, your child can call and text you and other contacts, but only the contacts that you determine (up to 10 in most models).
  • Text and Call-Enabled iPod Touch or Tablets – I had no idea until I researched for this article that with the right apps, kids can text and make phone calls from their iPod Touch or tablets for free. One of my son’s best friends carries his iPod Touch to our house to communicate with his mom, and all this time I’ve mistaken it for a smartphone. Duh. The only hitch is that the device has to be connected to Wi-Fi. Not as helpful for those kids on their walk from home or roaming around the neighborhood, but it should work sufficiently for kids connecting in most public places, schools and friends’ houses.

The Rules

So you’re going for it. Whether they’re getting a tricked out smart device or a simple text enabled and camera-equipped cell phone, here are some tips, rules and links for ensuring your kids are using phones safely and appropriately.

1) Have your child read and sign a contract that informs them of your specific expectations and boundaries. There are many contract variations out there, but I really liked the candor of this one. Simply reading it myself gave me a lot of great ideas for rules, and a new perspective of just how many expectations really must be spelled out.

2) Set parental controls through the settings of your child’s smartphone (on iPhones, they’re found under GeneralàRestrictions). There you can create a password that only you’ll know, and you will find detailed controls for the content your kids can access, including filtering websites, ratings of videos, movies, music and apps.

3). Buy (or download for free) a parental monitoring app that can monitor language in your child’s texts, what sites or apps they’re spending most of their time on, how much cumulative time they’re spending on their phones (as well as the times of day), track their location, alert the parent when they’re using the phone outside of “curfew,” and much more. There are many apps available, but I got the most recommendations for Qustodio, Life 360, WebSafety, and TeenSafe.

4). If you don’t like the “big brother” mentality of a monitoring app, simply inform your child that this phone is a privilege, not a right, and that you as their parent will have access to all of their logins and passwords; you will be their “friend” on all social media; you will ask for their phone at any given moment and monitor its contents; you will take their phone at bedtime, not to be returned until morning; and you will take the phone away if any of your rules are consciously broken.

Just as we wouldn’t hand our kids the car keys and hope for the best, we shouldn’t put such a powerful tool in their hands without teaching them how to use it responsibly and safely. The reality, which is so hard to face, is that with technology comes vulnerability to cyber bullying, online stranger-danger and exposure to explicit words and images. Having open conversations with our kids, putting rules in place, and keeping ourselves educated is the least we can do to ensure their safety.

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