My nephew in Scotland called the other day to get our opinion on the topic of whether or not kids should or should not have cell phones, for a homework assignment he had from school. He wanted a simple yes or no answer, and of course I saw it as being more complicated than a yay or nay reply.
When it comes to cell phone usage amongst the students that I’ve been given stewardship of I’m known for being strict. Once on a mission trip in West Virginia where we were told to not permit students to bring cell phones, and other portable devices, my group became known as the group with the mean youth pastor who didn’t actually let students bring their phones. Recently I called a friend of one of my students who was texting her during Sunday School and left a message to tell him that we were busy and she wouldn’t be available until after noon. Yet when I take my eighth graders ten hours up to Cedar Point I let them use their cell phones the entire weekend. The sole purpose of the trip is to have fun so the phones aren’t a distraction. I do however warn them about bringing them into the park just in case they lose them, but I leave the decision up to them.
I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was 26, which not coincidentally is the same age I got a real job. Not a summer job, not working at the movie theatre, not being a host at Applebee’s, but a job with a salary that I could afford to pay for the actual phone and monthly bill. Safe to say most kids will receive a cell phone in half or even a third of that time. They’ll never have to call collect, they’ll never see a 1-800-CALL-ATT commercial. They’ll likely never see a functioning pay phone live and in color. It’s a different world they are living in and yet there are some values, boundaries, and disciplines that young people today need to interact with and acquire. So here are some thoughts to consider as to whether or not young teens and children should or should not have a cell phone.
- Who’s Paying the Bill?… My thinking is that if a child has a phone then they should be able to pay the monthly charges they incur. If they can’t afford to because they don’t have a job then they shouldn’t have a cell phone. If they are too young to get a job that affords them a cell phone then they should earn the money via household chores. If the phone breaks, because they insist on the cute cover that offers no protection as opposed to the sturdier, bulky ugly one, then they have to earn and or save up money to replace it. I would even suggest that students be involved in the entire process of purchasing a phone and a plan for said phone so that they can see what all is involved and how expensive it is. However, if you should choose to pay for the phone and they not be burdened with the cost of buying and maintaining it then it’s your phone… they’re just the ones using it. Which also means you can take it back anytime you want, for any reason, no questions asked.
- Cell Phone v. Multimedia Device… There are cell phones and then there are smartphones. If you are a parent that wants a way to get in touch with your teen then do they really need the latest greatest device? The answer is no. All they need is a phone that allows them to place and receive calls, and of course as much as I hate to say it, text. Pay as you go phones still make up a pretty big portion of the cell phone market and are a great and affordable option too.
- Texting… If you are going to give them a plan that includes text you may as well get them a plan with unlimited texting. Otherwise you can expect some growing pains and high bills as they realize how quickly you can use up the allotted number of texts for the month. There’s really no point in getting a smartphone if you can’t afford to use it to its full potential. Which leads to another thought…
- iPhone v. iPod… My observation has been that many students really just want an iPhone. My question is do they really need and iPhone and do you really want them to have an iPhone? Why not just get them a plain phone and an iPod? An iPod can utilize the web wherever it is accessible and (here’s the good part for your pocket book) free. Whereas the iPhone is basically the same thing except you then you have to get a plan that includes data, which on any smartphone can be expensive. Moreover, they don’t have constant access to the internet if they only use free wi-fi, and possibly less likely to be using it for things they shouldn’t when you’re not around.
- No Phone Zone… Where are the places, what are the settings that they need to put the phone away? Dinner table, family time, when they’ve gone to bed for the night, are all scenarios that I’ve heard of parents collecting phones and disallowing their use. To me it makes sense so they can be in the habit of taking a break from the presence of their cell phone. This is why I don’t allow them on certain trips because they become too big of a distraction from what is happening in the present. Any of us that have a smartphone can attest to how easy it is to float off into our own little world within the confines of our phone when things get even the slightest bit boring.
- Parent Pressure… I think it’s fair to say that there’s a fair amount of pressure amongst parents to make sure their teen has a cell phone and a pretty cool one at that. Be careful not to sabotage any discussions you’ve had with them regarding not giving into peer pressure. If you cave into the pressure because “everyone else” has given their kids a particular phone, what does it communicate about ability to resist the pleas and pressure of you kid and other parents? No one has ever been entitled to anything just because “everyone else” has it. If they want to upgrade to a newer phone then they should have to pay all the money towards it. Getting and having a phone is a privilege not a right. Moreover, having the latest phone or gadget is a luxury. I can hear some people saying now, “Just wait until your daughter asks for a phone”. The times change, but not all principles do. Those principles won’t change when my daughter wants a phone.
- Meet the Parents… When I was a teenager if you wanted to talk to one of your friends on the phone the only option was to call the land line. This meant that you had to be prepared to possibly speak with their parents on the phone. Although the exchange with their parents was typically brief, you needed to be polite, cordial, respectful, and able to engage in small talk. It went double if I was calling a girl’s house. It was a good thing that will possibly be all but gone by the time my daughter is a teenager and her friends and admirers are calling for her directly.
The other day I left for work without my phone. I didn’t realize it until I was nearly in the parking lot. I did not turn around and go get it. I did not panic. I did not have the sensation, feeling, or otherwise delusion that I was naked without it. At the age of 35 I’ve had a cell phone for less than a third of my life. For the first 26 years of my life I was able to live a pretty productive, fulfilling, and connected life without one. I want to have the same feeling I had the other day when I’m without my phone thirty years from now. That being said when my phone is around it is too easy to distract me from times and moments of pause and boredom. I am too quick to app surf at stoplights, in waiting rooms, silences while out to eat, and while sitting on the lou. Not that there is an inherent problem with that, I just don’t want it to be my default reaction to fill in the dull moments of my life story that will never make it to print or film because nothing is happening. By the age of 16 many of the current generation of teens and children will have had a cell phone for half their life. They need to be given some boundaries now that will allow for them to own their cell phone in the future, and not be owned by their cell phone.