For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Raising Healthy Kids

Kids and Cell Phones: Staying Connected

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Do you know where your kids are? For many parents the answer is a resounding yes; they always know where their kids are. Cell phones have changed family life in many ways. They provide parents with peace of mind, and they're great in emergencies. Family members can always reach each other or call 911. Cell phones are also convenient and time-saving. Kids can let parents know where they are, when they need to be picked up, when they'll be late, and just generally what's happening. Parents can let children know if their plans change, whether they'll be late, and where to meet. In many ways, cell phones make life easier and safer.

Marianne, 16, has just earned her driver's license and wants to know she can call for help if her car breaks down.

Sylvan, 14, has several after-school activities and lets his parents know when he's going to be late.

Alana, 10, who just moved to a new neighborhood, calls home when she's not sure about directions.

Josh, 11, whose parents both work, lets them know when he gets home from school.

Estimates of how many middle school students own cell phones range from over 40% to 75%, with even higher rates for high school students.

The downside of cell phones

As with many technological innovations, there are some possible negative aspects of cell phones that parents should be aware of:

  • Cell phones are not just for talking. As the technology becomes more and more sophisticated, kids can use cell phones to do lots of other things without their parents' knowledge. With some phones kids can take pictures, text message or surf the Web for videos and games. They can also download pictures, videos, and music. Cell phones allow kids to keep their contacts secret and can facilitate contact with bad influences. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has reported that some teens are using technology and the Internet to get drug information, and cell phones provide instant access to information and sources of drugs. According to their report, 60% of teens have their own cell phones and 19 million teens instant message.

  • New features such as color and added power may provide games and videos of questionable content. Game ratings are not available on cell phones, so parents will have less knowledge or control of their children's activities than they have of children's use of home computers.

  • Cell phones offer opportunities for undesirable behavior, such as cheating on tests or teen dating abuse. Teens have reported that they have been called names, harassed, put down by their partner, or asked to engage in sex through cell phones and texting. They have also reported that boyfriends/girlfriends sharing private or embarrassing pictures/videos on cell phones and computers is a serious problem.

  • Since parents have demonstrated that they're willing to pay for the peace of mind that comes with knowing where their kids are, cell phone plans, particularly family plans, are proliferating. Preteens and teens represent a significant source of revenue for phone manufacturers, and younger children are also being targeted with the marketing of simple entry level phones. Industry spending on advertising to children has increased during the last decade from $100 million in 1990 to more than $2 billion in 2000.

  • The issue of safety and the impact of cell phones on the developing brain is still unresolved. The FDA has taken the position that there is no evidence that cell phones can cause harm. The use of headsets is recommended, however.

When is a child ready for a cell phone?

Cell phones have become a status symbol, and even young children are clamoring for them. The decision to give a child a cell phone should depend not only on need but also on whether or not s/he can be responsible for taking care of it. Children have been known to lose the phone, bury it in a backpack, forget to turn it on, lend it to a friend, etc. Several cell phones are specifically designed for younger children; they have no frills and have built-in parental controls, such as limits on who can call and who can be called, lack of internet access or text messaging capability, and plans with prepaid minutes that can't be exceeded.

School policy

Believing that phones interfere with academic productivity and concentration, most schools have policies about their use, such as not allowing cell phones to be used in class, no cell phone rings at school, and vibrate-only calls in an emergency. Some schools permit the use of phones only in the parking lots and bus and parent pickup spots.

Guidelines for parents

Monitor your children's use of all technological devices.

Take precautions with your children's use of cell phones. Text messaging enables children and adolescents to be in touch with and to make plans with people without parental knowledge. Know your children's cell phone contact list.

Be specific about cell phone use and set up specific rules about how and when the phone will be used. Set a limit on how much time children can use each month and how many text messages they can send and receive.

Plan for cell phone costs. Together with teenagers, investigate all options, such as the possible advantages of adding a line to a parent's phone. Monitor the monthly cell phone bill to see how children are spending their minutes and discuss the results with them. Keep track of additional service costs, such as ring tones, photos and text messages.
Determine how teenagers will contribute to the costs.

Emphasize and enforce the rule that teens should never use a cell phone while driving.

Establish rules of etiquette, such as never using a cell phone within 20 feet of another person, phones should be turned off in places where they might disturb other people, private conversations should not take place in public places.

While cell phones have many advantages for parents and children, it is important to keep in mind the changing needs of children at different ages to insure their healthy development.