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Claire McCarthy, M.D. Headshot

Preteens and Cell Phones: My Change of Heart

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One evening last May, I came home to the note below.

2012-02-05-Natashap1350.jpg

My daughter Natasha, 10 years old and in 4th grade at the time, wanted a cell phone bad. She'd been asking and asking and essentially being ignored, so she decided to put her argument in writing (with, I found out later, the support of my husband). She went through all the reasons she should have one (you can't tell from the picture, but it was on really big paper), figuring it would be irrefutable.

It didn't work. We said no, you have to wait until middle school like your older siblings did. She really didn't need one -- she never strayed far from home, we didn't need it for school pick-up planning (she always knows if she should walk home), and we were pretty good at estimating when we should pick her up from swim practice (there are phones at the YMCA to call us if there is a problem). More importantly, we were concerned about the downsides of cell phones. We didn't want her2012-02-05-Natashatreatisep2350.jpg distracted (it was the image of Tash texting as she walked in the street that changed my husband's mind), we didn't want to deal with the possibilities of things like sexting or bullying via cell phone, and the World Health Organization had just come out with a statement saying that cell phone usage could possibly increase the risk of cancer (it put it in the same group as coffee, but whatever, risk is risk).

And, it turned out, the real reason she wanted one was that her friends had them. It wasn't about needing one, it was about wanting to be cool. She kept up the campaign for a long time. Finally, after several months, she gave up (I have to say, although it was a relief not to be fighting with her, part of me that felt sad that we'd squelched her feistiness.)

Then something happened: I started wishing Tash had a cell phone.

Mostly, it was the darn swim practice thing. Who knows, maybe it was on purpose, but she got more social with the girls on the team and sometimes (unpredictably, of course) took literally forever showering and getting dressed. Because we don't want her waiting outside on the street long, especially in winter, we err on the side of getting there early (leaving dinner on the stove or work undone) -- and sometimes wait for a frustratingly long time.

But it was more than that. Tash started venturing out into the world more -- going on bike rides alone, walking further to friends' houses, going with friends to the park. Although we have all sorts of rules about routes and contacting us, I couldn't help wishing there was a way for us to reach her -- or her us -- immediately if necessary.

I'm not alone in wanting my preteen kid to have a phone. According to a 2010 Mediamark Research Intelligence study, from 2005-2009 the percentage of 10-11-year-olds with a cell phone went from 20% to 36%, an 80% increase. Given the exponential nature of this rise, we are probably at around 50% now.

Cell phones are simply becoming part of life for our youth. In a 2009 Pew Internet survey, none of the 17-year-olds surveyed had cell phones when they were 11 -- but 16% of 14-year-olds and 20% of 13-year-olds did. I get that evolution. When my oldest two got their phones seven years ago at 13 and 12, I had no idea how it was going to affect our lives. Now I have a better idea. Yes, there are dangers and downsides. We've learned to manage most of those with safety and usage rules (no texting while walking on the street and phone off at bedtime, for example.) We talk about bullying and other ways phone usage can go bad.

But we've also found that there are real upsides. The convenience and safety stuff is huge, but the ability to connect is really wonderful too. The other day my son called mid-afternoon to say he'd just walked within 5 feet of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on his college campus (way cooler than any movie star as far as Zack is concerned). We send pictures or videos of what we are doing back and forth. We wish each other good luck. We are always within reach of each other -- and as a parent, I love that.

So as Natasha's 11th birthday approached, I talked to my husband. Turns out he'd been thinking the same thing. Here's the video (the hugs caused some technical difficulties):