Sooner or later they’re going to ask: ‘Mom, can I have a smartphone?'
by Brett Buckner
Special to The Star
Mar 24, 2013 | 3686 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Daniel Barnett got a cell phone before the now 14-year-old traveled to New Orleans with the Oxford High School Marching Band for the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. Photo: BIll Wilson/The Anniston Star
Daniel Barnett got a cell phone before the now 14-year-old traveled to New Orleans with the Oxford High School Marching Band for the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. Photo: BIll Wilson/The Anniston Star
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Cheryl Arrinson knew the question was coming.

Her daughter, Grace, was acting weird — paying an inordinate amount of attention to TV commercials, coming home with stories of friends and what those friends’ moms had bought, and noticing sales ads in the paper or Internet pop-up windows.

And when Arrinson took her school shopping back in the summer of 2009, rather than looking at new dresses and backpacks, Grace silently gravitated toward the Verizon store, pulling her mom with her.

“She wasn’t exactly subtle,” Arrinson said, laughing at the memory. “I just played along and waited for her to get up the nerve to actually ask me.”

That day came a few weeks into the school year. While they were sitting on the couch watching TV, Grace turned to her mother and, in a “very practiced speech,” laid out all the reasons why she wanted a Droid Razr cell phone. At the time, Grace was 8 years old.

“Even though I knew it was coming, I didn’t think she’d ask for that,” said Arrinson, who lives in Oxford. “I mean … a Droid. That phone was way better than the one I had. I couldn’t help but laugh. It just seemed silly to buy that kind of phone — never mind how expensive they were — for an 8-year-old.

“I just thought she was too young.”

A July 2011 survey conducted by Verizon Wireless and Parenting.com reported the average age for a first cell phone is 11.6 years old. According to this same survey, 10 percent of parents stated their children were between 7 and 9 when they received their first phone.

Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson and his wife, Lisa, who is the technology director for Calhoun County Schools, cannot say precisely what the appropriate age is for children to have smartphones, but he believes that 10 years old is simply too young, and parents are giving phones to their children too soon.

“The smartphone opens the door to the Internet and social media — both can be dangerous to young people,” Amerson said. “Their lives are dominated enough by these and I say to parents, they go out into the world far too early today in ways we cannot control. By supplying them with another means to be influenced by outside pressures beyond parental control is a bad idea.

“Countless generations of young children have survived just fine without instant communications.”

‘Dumb things with smartphones’

Arrinson’s answer to her daughter Grace in 2009 was no. While she did buy Grace a cheaper model for her 10th birthday, it would be almost three years before Grace got a smartphone.

“It was probably the right thing to do,” Grace now concedes. “I didn’t need that kind of phone. Even if I’d gotten one, I wouldn’t have had anybody to talk — or text, I mean — to. I don’t even know why I wanted it … just to feel more grown up I guess.”

Grace isn’t alone. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone and 48 percent of them own smartphones — up from 23 percent in 2011.

As ubiquitous as cell phones have become, the reality is that virtually all parents will have to decide at what age it’s appropriate for their child to own, not only a cell phone, but a smartphone with its boundless capabilities, hidden expenses and potential for embarrassing or even life-altering consequences to actions that most young people simply cannot fathom.

Grace was 13 when she finally got a smartphone — this time it was iPhone, the model below the one her mother has. She “loves it,” but understands that it is something she also needs to be wary of.

“People do a lot of dumb things with smartphones,” Grace said. “I don’t want to be like that.”

Plus, knowing how important the phone is to her daughter gave Arrinson some pretty strong leverage.

“I keep track of what she’s using it for,” she said. “She’s not allowed to have a password and I check it randomly. But more than that, Grace knows that if she ever gets in trouble, or if her grades drop, the phone is the first thing to go.”

Jon Garlick, a mental health officer for the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, doesn’t think that teens need cell phones until they are at least old enough to drive. Beyond that, the responsibility then falls to the parents to ensure that their children are using this technology wisely. Garlick suggests parents check their teens’ phones daily for pictures, texts, emails and visited sites. He also suggests parents check the bill regularly and place a GPS on the phone.

“No matter what age, the parents must limit connectivity, however they can,” Garlick said. “This technology will not go away, so we must parent our way through all of it. Spot-checking and hyper-vigilance is the only way; that and maintaining a good relationship with your children.

“Talk to them and listen to them — a child who is listened to will listen as well.”

Daniel Barnett started asking for a cell phone when he was 13, at a time when the family was looking to change its coverage plan anyway. Much like Grace Arrinson, Daniel had a good argument as to why he needed one.

“When we first asked him why, he said it was so we could stay in touch with him,” said Daniel’s father Don. “But we soon came to find out that he really wanted it to play games on.”

Don and his wife agreed that allowing Daniel to have a cell phone was a good idea, especially considering that as a member of the Oxford High School Marching Band, Daniel was going to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans. But true to his word, Daniel would only be able to make phone calls. His new phone didn’t have the ability to text or connect to the Internet.

“At first I was so glad to have it, that I didn’t really care what it couldn’t do,” said Daniel, who’s now 14. “Plus they told me that if I want to text that I’d have to pay for it myself, so that helped me not want it so much.”

It helps that neither of Daniel’s parents’ phones have Internet access or texting ability — so at least it’s fair. And to hear Don tell it, Daniel rarely uses or even charges the phone that he has — but he’s started to hint about wanting an iPad for a future birthday present.

“It’s something we have to keep in mind,” Don said. “I think what he has now is appropriate for his age, but he’ll be 15 soon and we’ll be entering a new realm.”

But for now, Daniel’s happy with the cell phone he has, limited though it may be.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “It’s not that big a deal. I don’t waste a lot of time on computers or on the phone. I’d rather be outside because I wanna try out for the basketball team next year.”

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.

Simple advice for parents facing the smartphone dilemma

The Calhoun County School System is now implementing a Power Up! program that allows students to bring their own devices to school to use as learning tools. This program is offered for a variety of grade levels and ages, and includes cell phones, tablets and laptops, etc.

Students are also learning about “digital citizenship,” including how to properly and safely use these devices. At school, there are filtering programs in place for guarding the Internet.

“My personal opinion is that there is no magic age to give a child a cell phone,” said Lisa Amerson, technology director for the county school system.

Amerson gives some tips for deciding when that right age is:

• Cost: What features do they want? This could include a phone with just voice and text messaging or a smartphone with Internet access.

• Maturity: Is the child responsible enough to keep up with it? The phone can often be used as a reward/punishment if done so consistently and judiciously.

• Need: Are kids driving, participating in after-school activities? Do they frequently go between households and parents, grandparents, etc.?

• Supervision: Do parents have the ability to monitor parental controls, GPS, passwords, etc.?

Cell phone companies are getting smarter about parental control offerings, and Amerson suggests investing in these options.

“It is good to practice with them first,” she said. “Allow them to use your cellphone in your presence and observe how it is used or purchase one with limited capabilities to begin with and allow them restricted times to use it. Parents should always begin with asking the child for their passwords and check the phone regularly. Be upfront and open that you intend to do that, and that it is the price of allowing them a cell phone.”

— Brett Buckner
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