It’s May and every year at this time I work extensively with fifth graders on podcasts and other multimedia projects. Each year the students’ conversations drift toward their anticipation of sixth grade, middle school … and new cell phones. A connection exists, in their minds, between the first year of Middle School and getting the all-important digital accessory. Actually, the kids feel it’s an accessory, but their parents consider it a lifeline — something to keep them connected to their children whenever it’s necessary (and sometimes when it isn’t that necessary).
A good getting-started article to read is the New York Times piece When to Buy Your Child a Cell Phone, written by reporter Stephanie Olsen in June 2010. While quite a few children now have cell phones in sixth grade, a few parents prefer to wait to purchase a child’s phone for a year or so beyond the start of Middle School. Common Sense Media’s cell phone page provides lots of helpful information for parents, including a short video to assist with the decision-making process. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children website also has an article, Cell Phones, What’s the Right Age?
If parents go ahead with a phone purchase they need to remind their children, on a regular basis, that cell phones are not toys. Mobile phones are sophisticated communication tools that also happen to entertain, but they continuously connect children with one another and with the digital world, bringing along a host of potential behavior issues. Adults need to learn as much as possible about the power of the cell phones before giving them to pre-adolescents and teens.
Check out resources at Carnegie Mellon University’s My Secure Cyberspace. Materials include comprehensive information on cell phones. Another document from the same source is Should Your Child Have a Cell Phone?
A gadget orientation is critical for every new device. Before handing over a mobile phone to a child, take the time to go over general guidelines and your expectations. Review these expectations regularly, and update them each time a child gets a phone upgrade. Parents may also consider writing or using a cell phone contract that spells out cell phone expectations and possible consequences when a child breaks the rules. The attached contract (via link and graphic) may be used with children and shared with other parents as long credit is given to the author.
Pay special attention to the phone’s digital camera. We know that children, as they are moving into and through adolescence, can behave impulsively, and in an instant, an impulsive image idea can become public, embarrassing and even a legal problem. Ben Franklin’s adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is timely and relevant, even in the digital age. The more we discuss potential digital image problems with children, the greater the chance that they will think before snapping and/or sharing inappropriate pictures.
Before purchasing a phone, find out what features can be controlled and monitored by parents. What phone functions can be turned off by a parent or by the phone company? This post from the Online Mom Blog, Parental Controls for Cell Phones, provides a good overview.
Don’t forget about timing. As a family, decide when cell phones can be used in the house and when they will be off-limits. Will there be phone-free times at family meals? Can phones stay in bedrooms during sleeping hours? Perhaps all family members can leave phones in a location away from the dining room table at meal times. Moreover, many families now charge phones overnight in a central location away from bedrooms.
Finally, setting an example with a phone or PDA is one of the most effective teaching strategies that a parent can use. Use your phone wisely. In the final analysis, our actions speak louder than our words.