September 8, 2008 in Features

Weigh benefits, risks of cell phones for kids

Armin Brott Staff writer
 

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter turns 10 next week and has made it known that she expects, needs, yearns for and won’t be able to live without a cell phone. “Everybody has one,” she says. Is she too young? I’m not even sure I know what the issues are, but it seems like opening a huge can of worms.

A: When I was a kid, the rules about cell phones were simple. Oh wait, we didn’t have cell phones at all, which explains why you’re not up on the issues. So let’s start with a few advantages:

•Cell phones allow you and your kids to stay in touch. The additional safety and security that this provides is – at least from your perspective – the greatest benefit. Your daughter can call if she needs you, and you can call her if you need to know where she is and what she’s doing.

•Many parents (mostly those with children older than your daughter) use cell phones as a small-scale introduction to adult responsibilities – everything from paying the bill and staying within monthly minutes to keeping it charged.

At the same time, there are some potential downsides. Whether they outweigh the benefits is your call:

•Having a cell phone can sometimes provide a false sense of security, encouraging kids to go places they wouldn’t ordinarily go “because if anything goes wrong, I have my phone.

•Phones can be a serious distraction, especially when texting is involved. Plus, if the phone is Internet-enabled, there’s the additional risk of unmonitored access to that whole world.

In all fairness, there are ways to control these concerns, including phones that can only call to and from certain phone numbers and plans that allow you to turn off Web access and text messaging.

There are even certain GPS-enabled phones that send you a text message if your child ventures beyond certain pre-programmed (by you) boundaries. Popular brands include TicTalk, Migo, Kajeet and Firefly.

Some parents are also concerned about possible cell phone-related health issues, such as brain tumors or cancer. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh recently recommended that kids use cell phones for emergencies only. However, the jury’s still out on this one: A large number of studies in the United States and Europe have found no connection between cell use and any health problems.

Health aside, the biggest issue for most parents is money. Phones themselves are pretty cheap. But like printers (which are don’t cost much but guzzle gallons of ink), the hardware is just the beginning.

Exceeding your minutes, Web browsing and downloading custom ringtones can be extremely expensive. And so is texting, which in my house is just about the only way to reach my teenagers.

Ten cents per message doesn’t sound like much – until you realize that the average American teenager sends 20 text messages a day. That’s more than $700 a year just for texting. So either limit the number of messages or consider an unlimited plan.

As with any major step forward, I suggest negotiating a trial period. One week, one month, and three months after getting the phone, sit down with your daughter and take a look at the impact the phone has had on her life and the life of your family.

If you believe that the influence has been negative, you can – and probably should – pull the plug, at least for a while. But the odds are good that your daughter will use this time to demonstrate just incredibly darn responsible she is.

And who knows – she might even end up cleaning her room, too.

Armin Brott is an Oakland, Calif.-based author of six best-selling books on fatherhood; www.mrdad.com.

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