For a long while, Doug Luce, a Seattle-area father of two middle-schoolers, was convinced that parents who send their own pre-teens to school with a cell phone were committing a parenting faux pas. That was until his older child was finally of age to receive is own phone. A few days of sending off one kid with a phone and one without made Luce was a convert. It didn't feel right that he stayed connected with his oldest, yet his youngest, who was actually less equipped to handle problems that arose during the school day, wasn't able to keep in touch.
Initially, Luce thought that his children would get phones once they turned 12. But after his daughter borrowed her brother's phone for a day, he was forced to change his mind. He gave his daughter's request to walk a mile to her day camp as an example of why having the means to stay in contact is important. Having a phone allowed Luce to set the rules: text me when you leave, and when you arrive and call if there's a problem. Without the ability to instantly connect, Luce said he would have never allowed his daughter to go on that kind of walk unaccompanied.
His experience has altered his views on pre-teens carrying cell phones, seeing them not as a nuisance or too-early an intrusion of technology into kids' lives, but, on the contrary, a good way for younger children to develop a sense of independence while allowing parents to maintain oversight. But this is not an opinion that's universally shared.
"My recommendation, based on child development and professional experience, is that parents should not even think of getting a cellphone for a child younger than 12," said Kevin J. Roberts, Detroit-based author of "Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap," and a speaker on cellphones, the Internet and video games.
"If a parent has a situation in which phone access become imperative from time to time, many families keep a spare pay-as-you-go phone to be used sparingly," Roberts said.
The goal is to make sure that children don't view technology as a given or a right, but instead as a privilege, and learn to use it accordingly. Just because giving a pre-teen a phone would ease some parental anxiety doesn't make it a good idea, Roberts points out. Children younger than 12 are mostly not responsible enough to carry cell phones no matter how much they envy their older siblings who are.
Still, even if parents decide to give a cell phone to a younger kid, there are steps they can take to make sure the privilege isn't abused.
"Children at this age are not adept at self-regulation, so I recommend going to your cellphone company's website and turning the phone off after 10 p.m. and during the school day," Roberts said. "If your child needs to contact you during the school day, he or she can do what we had to do: go to the office."