Too Young for a Cell Phone?

At a recent school fair – you know, the type with a moon bounce, funnel cakes, and kids running around tipsy with glee to be off-leash for a few hours -- my nine-year-old daughter strutted around with a puzzling pink cell phone sticking out of her front pocket. The phone looked familiar, I realized, because it was my old cell, dead for at least three years. She’d snitched it from my messy office desk drawer. When I asked her why she was walking around with a decrepit, useless phone, she gave me a crazed look. “Duh, Mom. So people think it’s mine.”


Over the past decade, cell phones have become necessities for most adults in the United States, priceless communication and convenience tools. We panic if we lose them or leave them at home for even a few hours. I can’t imagine a day in my life without mine. But I hadn’t realized that a kid’s first cell phone has become a right of passage as critical as a bat mitzvah, a driver’s license or a diploma.


These days, instead of debating when to buy a child’s first bike, or let them walk to school alone, many parents (and their children) debate over how young is too young to buy a child their own cell phone.


Like so much of parenting decisions, there is no right answer. Each kid and every family’s needs are distinct. I know a child in first grade who has her own cell phone. She’s an only child with parents who work split shifts, and she is often at after school, and at friends’ and relatives’ homes overnight. Her parents need her to have a phone so they can kiss her goodnight and arrange complex logistics. But since this girl has no friends with cell phones, its usage is limited to her parents and caregivers. At least until a quorum of her friends catch up and get their own phones. At the other end of the spectrum, I know a family of three young girls so independent they take the subway alone…but they are not allowed a dedicated cell phone until ninth grade.


My oldest child got a phone when he was in fourth grade and started spending evening hours in basketball gyms without us. His cell phone solved a safety concern. What if practice ended early? We didn’t want him alone, 45 minutes from home, stranded in an empty elementary school. And indeed, cell phone providers like Verizon and Motorola make “baby” cell phones specifically for safety and parental communication. The phones are limited to a few emergency numbers and are designed for young children to use easily and safely.


But what makes sense for older kids who beg for a cell for the same reasons we adults consider phones indispensible -- to manage their lives and communicate with their friends? In general, I don’t see many kids younger than eleven with cell phones. Most kids in 7th and 8th grades (ages 12 to 14) seem to have them. The family that forbids cell phones until ninth grade is my personal data outlier.