by Abby Margolis Newman
I've been struggling for months now with the idea of whether to buy a cellphone for my 11-year-old son, Henry, so it was with great interest that I read the recent article in the New York Times entitled, "When to Buy Your Child a Cellphone." To be honest, I was hoping that the gist of the article would be, for Henry, "Not Yet!" - I've consistently felt that fifth grade is too young for cellphones - but the reality is that a cellphone wave is a-coming straight toward his peer group, and I need to decide whether to let Henry ride it or let it crash over his head.
When Henry was in fourth grade, exactly one child got a phone that year - and it was an iPhone. Once I got over the initial shock, I thought, OK: a) if any kid was going to get a cellphone in fourth grade, this would be the kid; and b) it's an anomaly. By fifth grade, it seemed that everything had changed. In November we attended Henry's "Back to School Night," and his teacher informed the assembled parents that approximately 50% of the kids had cellphones. My jaw literally dropped. Half the kids?! Now, at the end of his fifth-grade year, Henry's teacher tells me that percentage has risen to over 70%.
With our older two boys, my husband and I agreed that it would make sense for them to have cellphones starting in middle school. They would be riding their bikes to school every day, and we wanted them to have a way to call us if a bike broke down - or, as happened a couple of years ago, if one of them should happen to get hit on his way home (very gently) by a car driven by a kindly octogenarian. Since this was around 2006-2007, texting wasn't an issue because texting didn't exist yet. The boys barely used their phones during those years.
2010 is, as everyone knows, another story. In the New York Times article, Stefanie Olsen writes, "Parents generally say they buy their child a phone for safety reasons, because they want to be able to reach the child anytime. . . But for children, it is all about social life and wanting to impress peers." And it's all about texting. "Experts say the social pressure to text can get acute by the sixth grade," reports Olsen, "when most children are 11 years old."
Good god. Why do 11-year-olds need to text? And about what? Our two older boys did not text until high school. OK, if I'm honest with myself I must admit that the advent of texting coincided with their time in high school, but still. I have spent the last few months in frequent arguments with Henry, all of which go something like this:
Henry: Mom, when can I get a cell phone?
Me: Middle school.
Henry: Can't I have one now? A lot of kids already have them.
Me: No. You don't need one.
Henry: When I get it, can I have texting?
Me: No. You don't need texting in sixth grade, that's ridiculous.
Henry: Yes I do! Everyone else has texting - if I don't have it, I'll be totally out of it and feel like a dork.
Me: (Guilt-ridden silence.)
So what to do? Stick to my (admittedly strict and probably outdated) guns and give him the phone with no texting, thereby ensuring his position as a totally out-of-it dork? Or cave, decimating my parental credibility but guaranteeing Henry's lifelong gratitude and eternal coolness among his peers?
Even before I read the Times piece, I'd already decided against allowing any Internet use on Henry's future phone, and the article only cemented my resolve. The chief executive of Common Sense Media is quoted, saying, "Most parents want to give a cellphone to keep [their kids] safe, but that ignores the great majority of uses that kids are using cellphones for." He says that Web access can lead to cyberbullying, "sexting" (sending nude photos via text message), and cheating in class, among many other scary possibilities.
Henry is "graduating" from fifth grade next week - yes, complete with ceremony, programs, graduation speeches, food and decorations, after-party. . . which makes me wonder, how the hell will they continue to outdo each increasingly elaborate celebration for middle school, high school, college graduations?
Anyway, Henry will be receiving a $20 AT&T phone for his graduation gift. As for the texting, I have decided on a middle ground: he will be allowed to text, but only a (very) limited number of texts per month. When he gets to high school, if he wants unlimited texting, he can have it but - like his older brothers - he'll need to pay the extra monthly fees. And if I get any whiff of malfeasance regarding the content of his texting, I can always threaten him with "My Mobile Watchdog," which sends a copy of a child's texts or photos to a parent's phone. I don't expect to have to use it, but - like insisting on knowing my older boys' passwords for Facebook and email - they know the possibility exists.
In the meantime, I believe we've arrived at a win-win: Henry does not get a phone in fifth grade (parental credibility intact), but he can text and thus circumvent the most dreaded tween label of all: dork (coolness factor intact). And best of all, no more arguments - at least about cellphones.