Should pre-teens have cell phones? My 10-year-old thinks so.

Should pre-teens have cell phones? My 10-year-old thinks so.

My 10-year-old daughter wants a cell phone. She wants it bad. So bad that the other night I came home to the note pictured below.

Natasha’s treatise, page 1
(Natasha’s treatise, page 1)

Her three older siblings got cell phones in middle school, when they began to routinely go places without us. But Natasha (who just finished 4th grade) wants one now. So she put together a treatise (you can’t tell from the picture, but it was on really big paper) about why she needs one.

The truth is, she doesn’t need one. She is never really far from us on walks or bike rides. While it might be nice to time pickup from swim practice, we’re actually reasonably good at figuring out how long it takes Tash to shower and get dressed (longer than is reasonable + 10 minutes). If we’re wrong, or there’s some sort of emergency, there are phones at the YMCA she can use.

Natasha's treatise, page 2
(Natasha’s treatise, page 2)

This is what I told her the next morning, as she sat on the stool with her arms crossed, scowling at me. And then she burst into tears. “Do you know how hard it is,” she sniffled, “not to have one when all your friends do?”

Of course. The real reason. Cell phones are cool. Tash is all about cool.

According to a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation report, 31 percent of 8-10-year-olds have cell phones. The numbers have certainly gone up since then. So while I doubt that all of Tash’s friends have a cell phone, I wouldn’t be surprised if a bunch of them do.

So why do I care? We’ve got old phones around the house. We have a family plan, so we’d just have to pay the monthly charge, which isn’t so much.

Here’s why I care. First of all, that same Kaiser report said that the average 7th to 12th grader spends and hour and a half a day texting.

They text during school, even when there are rules against it. They talk and text as they walk (how many times have you had someone on a cell phone walk obliviously in front of your car?). They play games on them, watch TV, or surf the Web. It is a huge distraction. I don’t want Tash distracted like that.

It’s not just the distraction factor.There’s the problem of sexting, in which kids send lewd or suggestive pictures of themselves to each other (which is a felony, as it’s distributing porn). Bullying happens via text.

And now the World Health Organization says that cell phone use is a “possible carcinogen”: the low-level radiation cell phones emit could possibly increase the risk of certain brain tumors. This kind of radiation, if it does damage, does it over years. The earlier you start using a cell phone, the more years of exposure.

We can set rules around her cell phone use, sure (interestingly, very few of the kids in the Kaiser report said that their parents set rules). But these rules are hard to enforce, and it’s hard for me to imagine Tash being careful to hold the phone away from her head.

For some young kids, cell phones truly do improve their health and safety. Kids with chronic and dangerous health problems, like diabetes or bad asthma, can use them to get help quickly. Kids who will be alone for more than brief periods are safer if they can be in touch with a grownup easily. And for various reasons, some families need the ability to be in close contact. In these situations, the benefits outweigh the risks. In Natasha’s situation, they don’t.

I don’t know the right age for giving a child a cell phone. Maybe middle school is too early (more than two-thirds of 11 to 14-year-olds have them). Ultimately, families need to decide what makes sense for them. But as they do, I hope they think about the risks and downsides of cell phones.

We did some serious thinking about those risks and downsides. Sorry, sweetie. You’re not getting one yet.

Claire McCarthy MD

Claire McCarthy is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston. She has been writing about health and parenting for twenty years. She blogs regularly for Thriving, a blog of Children's Hospital Boston.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

  1. Claire Ireland

    I am a 12 year old and I can’t text, back when I didn’t have an iPod if you wanted to text you had to get a phone so I practically had the same situation. I personally think that we should be able to have phones. As you said many people already have phones around us. As for the inappropriate talking, parents can just check their child’s phone/ iPod every night and if they find anything they may take away their child’s phone/ iPod. Also, I see your concern with too much time on their phone but you can always set a limit and every once in a while send them outside to play for a while. That is my conclusion if you did not listen to this story I am truly sorry, because that shows how much parents can trust children around my age sometimes.

    • Grace

      I’m a year older than you and kinda in the same situation. But we really don’t have a NEED for it. We just want them. Yeah, there are many excuses that you may come up with that are opposed to that statement. But I think that it’s better that you have an iPod than nothing

      • Grace,

        I love your honest reply. I bet your parents appreciate it, too. Who knows, they may even feel like your attitude proves you are old enough to not fall into some of the pitfalls of cell phone usage — using your phone when you are supposed to be doing homework, texting when you should be sleeping, sexting, etc.

        Thanks for you input,

  2. GeordieKin

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, I ran the health office in a school which had only grades 4 & 5, pre-k, and Special needs classrooms so I had plenty of talks with parents and kids about cell phones. This is a very heated subject between kids and parents but it is also one where the answer will depend a lot on the maturity of the child. I explained to the parents that a big reason my husband and I wouldn’t be getting our son, who at the time attended middle school in the same district I worked, a cell phone prior to his freshman year in high school because when kids get these things earlier they have nothing majorly important to them left to look forward to until it’s time for their drivers license, so they end up searching for things to get that excited feeling back that they felt when they and their friends spent all that time looking at and planning what cell phone they wanted. Which for some kids leads them into trouble.

    • Alan Greene

      I agree, GeordieKin… beautiful, thoughtful, empathetic, strong approach.

      • GeordieKin

        Thank you :-)


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