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The dilemmas in parenting never end and this is just another one of them – “When should I give my child a cell phone?” What is interesting is that the question is not whether to give a cell phone, but rather when!
On the mycity4kids Facebook forum, we asked our parent community the same question. While parents may have differed on the ideal age to hand over a cell phone, they all unanimously agreed that it is an essential tool for security of the child and peace of mind for parents. Indeed, how comforting to know that you can find out about your child’s well-being at the click of a button.
30% of respondents to our question felt 10-11 years was an appropriate age to hand them a cell phone as children are out for classes or playing on their own and need to be accessible. Almost 40% of parents would like to wait as long as possible, perhaps till the age of 15-16 or when children pass out of school. About 25% were in favour of giving kids a cell phone as early as necessary – even at the age of 5 or 6, while the remaining numbers did not have a specific age in mind and were ready to go with the flow.
Depending on whom you ask, cell phones for kids might be considered a necessity, a luxury, a fad or an invasion. But whatever your stance, parents must be aware of the dangers that open up once a child has a cell phone in his or her hands.
The same technology that has made our life simpler in so many ways has also made our child vulnerable to exploitation. If GPS allows us to know where our child is at any given point, it also opens him up to a potential stalker or pedophile. A cell phone just gives the outside world another way to communicate with your child. Stranger danger is as prevalent in the virtual world as in reality and parents need to know who is talking to their children.
As more and more children own cell phones, cases of cyber bullying are also on the increase. With the mobile device as the communication medium, rash and damaging messages can be transmitted to dozens, if not hundreds of children within seconds of pressing the send button. Sexting, a fast growing epidemic in high schools is nothing but a form of mobile harassment, taking exploitive pictures, often secretively, and sending them by phone to others.
Most of today's cell phones offer almost complete internet access, with web browsing, email, chat, and instant messaging, that is much harder to filter and control as compared to your home computer. While they may think it is cool, children lack the maturity to handle much of the content available to them on the Internet today.
We leave the most controversial issue for last - the still unresolved contention that electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones may damage DNA and cause benign brain tumors. Research is still on and studies so far have been inconclusive in proving any adverse effects of cell phone usage, but it has not been completely ruled out either.
Give in for the right reasons
Considering all the potential dangers of children using cell phones, parents need to carefully evaluate the reasons for handing a phone over in the first place.
If you are away from your child for long periods of time, giving your child a cell phone will certainly give you greater peace of mind. But if you are simply tired of being nagged by a child who wants what “everybody else has,” then you might want to rethink.
The bottomline is a cell phone is an expensive affair. Besides the device cost and talk time bills, add on applications, gaming, internet access etc. can lead to staggering bills. Kids are asking for technological gadgets at increasingly early ages, but only you as a parent can evaluate how necessary that is.
For example if the purpose of giving a 10 year old a phone is safety, her phone need not be a high end 3G smartphone. Give her a basic handset for maintaining contact when outside, and at home you could maybe share your IPad with her for a round of Angry Birds!
Start with a plan that has incoming calls only and restricted numbers for outgoing calls. For basic safety use, you will not even require internet access.
Experts suggest one of the biggest safeguards is ensuring that your child does not know his own number. This can work quite well if the only purpose of providing the phone is for parents to be able to reach the child at all times – in that case only they need to know his number.
A pre-paid plan with a limited number of minutes is usually a good idea, so that you won't be faced with a lot of extra charges
Let your child be aware that she will get the phone when she really needs it, like during a trip to the mall or any place when she might not be near a regular phone
It makes sense to have a discussion from time to time, about some of the more serious cell phone issues, cell phone etiquette and following mutually agreed rules for cell phone use.
Encourage children to use a headset as far as possible.