DEBATE CLUB: Should Your Grade-Schooler Have a Smartphone?

by ParentCo. September 15, 2016

boy holding up his phone infront of his face

Before we get into the debate...

Have you given your kid a smartphone?

On average, kids in the U.S. receive their first smartphone just a few months after their 10th birthday. Was your child one of them?

For sure!

By Rachel McClain

We ordered our 10-year-old a cell phone a few weeks ago. We didn’t just order him a cell phone though; we ordered him an iPhone. No, he’s not spoiled. (Well, okay. He’s a little spoiled; he does have a Lego Death Star, buried in a room full of toys. But, he’s no more spoiled than a standard kid around whom the earth revolves.)

Like a lot of Americans, we don’t have a landline, and we decided that we needed something for emergencies. I have some serious health problems, but also, like any kid getting older, he’s been begging to stay home alone for brief periods, like short trips to the boring grocery store.

While we were debating the purchase, it occurred to me just how important the decision really was, and for more reasons than: “He needs access to a phone.” It’s about accepting others’ parenting decisions, and about recognizing how much times have changed.

The “I never would’ve gotten an iPhone when I was that age” argument

I kept hearing this argument in my head. Then something occurred to me: when I was his age, there were no iPhones. In fact, there were no cell phones. Okay, there were cell phones; but they were the size of a brick, and they were for shiny men named Todd who did cocaine off the backs of toilets in nightclubs.

If we were ever left home alone, the avocado-colored rotary phone worked just fine. The piercing ring would reach us in the radius that our mom would’ve given us, which was generally the backyard. Besides, no one called kids in our day; friends all lived in knocking distance.

Times have changed

But these days, kids’ friends don’t all live in knocking distance. With charter and private schools, many kids don’t go to school in the neighborhood they live in, scattering friends all over the community. Plus, today’s kids are notoriously over-scheduled in after-school activities, making friends in karate, ballet, or swimming.

When your kid’s best friend lives 10 miles away, not 10 houses away, it’s time to recognize a difference in the way we're raising our children. We aren’t a generation of parents that opens the front door in the morning, pushing our kids out into the sun. We are a generation of parents with scheduled playdates and supervised outings.

Kids have changed

We've put our phones in our kids’ hands in waiting rooms and at Aunt Myrtle’s to keep them quiet, since they were able to figure out how to press that combination of keys, in just the right order, to change the keyboard to Japanese. They’ve grown up with technology – and with a seemingly innate ability to use it – that we didn’t have. They’ve grown up knowing that it will be there to meet their needs. This generation of kids has never not known Facebook, front-facing cameras, or that there is always a way to reach Daddy.

That’s when we realized that we were also worried about the backlash. Every parenting decision we make these days comes with an eye-roll or a tsk-tsk from someone because everyone has an opinion, on everything. We were worried that the minute he strolled outside with his own phone, we’d hear through the grapevine about our seemingly idiotic decision. But, the thing is: everyone is wrong. We can’t make decisions about what to do for our kid based on what you think you’d do for your kid. No one should. It’s crazy for anyone to do that.

Responsibility has changed

When we came to the point of being ready to trust our kid alone, for any length of time, we had to put all of that other stuff together. We spent a great deal of time debating things like a landline, or a voice over IP, but the cost difference between those things is negligible these days.

It occurred to us, after a lot of debate, that we were only deciding against the cell phone because we were afraid of the idea of progress. We were afraid that letting him have something in his pocket that enabled him to play games, or that let him connect, all the time, was something we couldn’t handle. When we realized that we trust ourselves to be good parents, with solid ideas on guidelines, rules, and limits, it dawned on us that this is no different than anything else.

So we pulled the trigger and went through with it. We decided that there was no reason to force him to go backward on technology just because we’d never had access to the same thing at his age. We set strict limits on usage and time, and we've followed through with them. In other words, we've been the same parents that we’ve always been – he’s just got a phone.

The whole point of getting him a phone was to provide him with the ability to contact us in an emergency, but now we have so much more. He’s texting us random love notes, even from the same room (filled with ridiculous emojis, of course). He’s autistic, and like so many other ASD kids, he’s fallen in love with Pokémon Go, so he’s running through the neighborhood, greeting neighbors like he’s never done before, and hatching his eggs (when his homework and chores are done, of course). Plus, he’s been more eager to do his chores, because he knows he’s helping to pay for something he truly values. And, best of all, I know where he is, all the time. That's a lot more than we ever would have gotten with a landline!


By Kate Rosin

It happened nearly a decade ago: My third-grader had just climbed into the school bus and as I watched her take a seat from my spot on the sidewalk, I noticed another child gazing vacantly out the bus window as he chatted on a cell phone. Who's on the other end of that call? I wondered. And what could possibly be so important that a 10-year-old needs a phone – at 8:30 a.m., no less?

I thought about that boy all day. While I could envision situations where it might be handy for a child to have his or her own phone – a kid is hurt or needs a ride home, a parent wants to convey an urgent message – I couldn't find a way to justify purchasing a cell phone for a child that young. I still can't.

As adults, I think we can all admit to a certain level of addiction to, or at least heavy reliance on, our phones. We use them for everything from calls and email, to maps and shopping. They make life infinitely easier. Though my husband and I were late adopters who didn't succumb to mobile phones until the mid-2000s, I can no longer imagine trying to navigate life – both literally and figuratively – without a smart phone.

Kids don't need the stress of owning a smartphone

Sometimes, however, the convenience of phone ownership begins to feel more like a burden. There is stress attached to checking incessant call, text, email, and app notifications; monitoring data usage to avoid overage charges; and protecting devices from loss, breakage, and theft. Are those concerns kids need to manage while they're still learning the ropes of life in elementary school? I don't think so.

In addition to being unnecessary worries and distractions, cell phones are also viewed as status symbols, expensive devices that contribute to low self-esteem by highlighting the division between the "haves" and the "have-nots." When she saw that boy on the bus with the cell phone in elementary school, my daughter immediately assumed he was wealthy and we were poor because she didn't have a phone. In reality, cost didn't factor heavily into our decision to postpone her phone.

There are still other ways to communicate

While there are benefits to having round-the-clock access to our children, there is no real need for it, especially during school hours. We all grew up without individual phones and our parents had no trouble getting messages to us in the classroom. School staff and teachers are still happy to communicate information between parents and their children. If you're sending a friend to pick up your kid at school, someone from the office will let her know. If your child gets sick and needs to go home, the school nurse will find a way to get in touch.

When young kids aren't at school, most parents know exactly where they are and all of those places – home, a friend's home, after-school programs, sports programs, etc. – offer landlines and/or supervising adults with cell phones that children and their parents can use to communicate.

Some might consider withholding immediate access to parents or caregivers via cell phone as unfair or even cruel, but it actually allows children to think independently and become more self-reliant. If, for example, a student forgets his homework and his teacher won't let him call someone to bring it to school, that's unfortunate, but turning an assignment in late provides a valuable life lesson about responsibility and preparedness.

When should kids get cell phones? That's obviously up to their parents, but in my experience, middle school seems to be about right. School work, athletics, and activity schedules tend to ramp up in middle school, and teachers, coaches, and program administrators begin relying more heavily on electronic communication. When my daughter played field hockey in eighth grade, for instance, her coach shared information through email and a team Facebook page. If after-school practice was changed or cancelled during the school day and my daughter didn't have access to the internet, her only hope of getting that information was from a teammate with a phone.

There are exceptions, of course, but in general, I believe that giving mobile phones to grade-schoolers benefits adults, not children. Young kids may think it's cool or fun to have a phone, but it's unfair to try to alleviate our own parental anxieties by burdening our offspring with additional, undue stress and responsibility. I say we let children be children, as carefree and unencumbered as possible, for as long as we can.



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