Parents often ask me at what age they should get their children a cell phone. I generally do not answer parents who I do not know well because I know that despite the specificity of the question and regardless of what I say, parents make their own decisions and these decisions usually fall into pretty well defined categories. Anxious, somewhat overprotective parents justify purchasing cells for their children while they are still preadolescent, somewhere around 11 or 12 years old. Their argument goes something like this – “If they get into trouble and need me they have a way to contact me immediately.” Why a mature adult is not supervising children at that young age does not factor into their equation.
Parents who want to be like the Jones’s give their children cell phones at an even younger age. They are the trendsetters, the ones other children who want the same things tell their parents about.
Other parents wait until their children are in the teen years before they broach the idea of a cell phone for children. Some in this group even tell their children that if they want their own phones they have to help cover the cost of owning the phone and service fees.
There is another reason I usually do not offer a broad opinion on children and cell phones; regardless of the age of the child who gets a phone, use of that phone is often based on the model for use that the parents set. If a parent is always on their cell, the child is likely to do the same. If the parent is checking messages, emails or playing solitaire, their child will probably be doing the same. The games may be different but the draw to play a video game on a cell phone is very much the same. Children do learn a great deal from their parents.
It is vacation week, time to take the children to the park, movies, museums, and holiday shows. The opportunity for special bonding is limitless. Just taking a break from the stress of the typical school and workday to spend time together for the holiday without worrying about homework or the demands that parents have from work make these holiday vacation weeks something that everyone looks forward to. Sometimes months of planning go into the choices of family activities. Sometimes children ask for special activities. Either way they are pleasurable events that are amusing and can be a real revelation to watch if you are a psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist or simply like to observe people.You can see imprinting at work as children line up to follow their parents or older siblings. You can see how children that are overwhelmed learn to confront and overcome fear. You can also observe a rainbow of personalities in the making. Most of all you can become witness to some detrimental behaviors, behaviors like cell phone use.
When I say detrimental in this context I am not speaking of children and their cell phones. I am referring to parents and their cells.
The new Cinderella movie is playing. The theater is packed with parents a few grandparents and a few hundred children. Before the movie is shown, a brief trailer tells people in the theater to put away their cells because they are disturbing to others even if you are just texting. Too bad, maybe the 30 or so parents did not hear the public announcement or did not look up to watch it. The little lights from an active cell are disturbing! More disturbing is hearing little Shana or Tommy say “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…Why is Cinderella crying?” and Mommy is too busy on her cell to even hear their child asking a question. It is not just mothers, fathers are also guilty. One fellow did not put his cell down throughout the entire two hours or so.
Don’t worry the parents were consistent – they continued to use their phones as they exited the theatre and as they drove off. They also had the phones on and active at the park and in the yogurt store. True, not all parents were so compulsive with their cells but too many are.
I wonder if it is time to expand the legal definition of child abuse and neglect to include parents who apparently care more for their cell phones than their children.