I got my first "smart phone" last month. Let me start by clearing up a common misperception about such a phone: It really is the phone that is smart. It is not just for smart people, as evidenced by the fact that I own one. However, it certainly does help to be smart to be able to use one. Or to turn it on.
Be that as it may, the subject of cell phones has come up with some regularity over the last year. My son, who is in seventh grade, doesn't want one, and I want him to have one. My daughter, in fifth, wants one more than life, and I won't let her have one.
And therein lay my query: At what age should children have their own cell phones?
Children as young as 6 and 7 often are already using the basic, just-for-calling-home phone, but those phones are rarely even manufactured anymore. Even the most basic phone comes equipped with a camera and Internet access, and some have video standard as well. When kids have very little grasp of consequences and the concept of "tomorrow" -- let alone "in perpetuity" -- why are we giving them these tools to record and play images and send words that could truly cause damage, if not now, then somewhere down the line?
Certainly there are parental controls, but my guess is that for every parental control function, there is an older child on the bus who knows how to hack it.
Which brings up another question -- don't kids lose things? In the local middle school, there are at least three boxes of lost-and-founds, including winter coats. I have to believe that if a child can walk out to the bus in the winter without realizing he's forgotten his coat, then putting the phone down for a minute and walking away cannot possibly be the exception. What happens when a child loses a cell phone? What happens to the information stored on it? What happens to the calling plan associated with it?
Texting is a perpetual concern as well. Oh, sure, it's all fun and games, until someone's reputation gets ruined or friendships irreparably torn. In the old days, you could pass someone a note in the heat of the moment, and make sure it got thrown away when clearer heads prevailed. These days, that note gets passed to hundreds of people before the clearer head thinks to hit "delete."
And these are concepts children should not have to understand. They shouldn't have to be concerned with whether the words they're texting or the photos they're sharing will come back to bite them in ten years. Yet we're forcing them to have to grasp this by putting this technology in their hands without being able to hand them the maturity that should accompany it.
Someone told me once that your child needs a cell phone when you need your child to have a cell phone. That makes sense to me. When my son is going to a dance and needs to call for a ride, then I need him to have a phone. Does my daughter need to text her friends when they're typically already hooked up on the computer, as well as by the regular, old-fashioned land line phone? I guess I just don't think so.
Maybe I'm in the minority. As the girl suggests, maybe it's because I'm an older mom and slower to change (which was well received, let me tell you). I admit I'm being dragged kicking and screaming into the technological explosion of the last couple decades, and God help me, I'm trying to keep up. But it's not just that I can no longer empathize. It's that I can barely even imagine. There is no, "Well, when I was your age" frame of reference, because when I was their age, these things didn't exist.
What is the answer? I don't know. Maybe I'll go ask my phone, since it is . . . you know . . . smart.
Follow Maggie Lamond Simone on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MagLamondSimone