Middle Schooler Question: To Cell or Not To Cell?

The mother of a rising sixth grader, Jessica Henry, writes about the cell phone dilemma.


The “back to school” catalogs have started rolling in, but I still haven’t quite figured out my rising sixth grader’s cell phone situation. I want him to have a cell phone so we can reach each other as needed, but I am concerned about too much texting, too much Internet access and too much distraction. To find out how others deal with this pressing issue, I turned to the experts: a group of middle school parents, taken solely from my email contacts, to ask about their cell phone decisions. 

As a preliminary matter, I wanted to know whether these parents were planning to buy their child a cell phone. Although the overwhelming majority of parents said yes, a small minority indicated that they were holding off—at least for the time being. One parent wrote that since their child has no interest in having a cell phone, they were happy not to get one and “to avoid the whole texting thing.” One mother in Glen Ridge quipped: "[my son] will get one when he can pay for it himself. In the meantime, I want him paying attention to traffic when he walks back and forth, not fiddling with a phone."

Yet, the vast majority of people surveyed indicated that they had—or were planning to—purchase a cell phone for their middle schooler. The number one reason cited was easy access. As Marcos Sanchez succinctly explained, the “ability to stay connected with [my son] is critically important to me.” My surveyed parents uniformly agreed. 

In addition, some parents felt that a cell phone helped them coordinate busy middle school schedules. Renata Worob put it this way: “Middle schoolers tend to have some independence ... for instance, walking around Upper Montclair village, Watchung Plaza or Church Street. They also receive their homework via email. Picking up and dropping off at parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and the movies to just name a few would be impossible. A large part of their social life is arranged via text.”

Virginia Middlemiss explained that middle school presents a “[m]uch more complicated schedule for [a] working mom and [that she] needs to reach him as he will now walk home or have to get himself to and from sports, etc.”   

Although most parents indicated that their children, so far, had not abused their cell phone, several parents expressed concern about their child’s cell phone usage and retention. One parent ruefully revealed that her daughter had a cell phone, but lost it twice and “cannot get another one until she” proves she can take care of it. Yet, some parents have come up with easy ways to limit their child’s cell phone usage. Sidney Simon, for instance, offered this helpful suggestion: although her sixth grader was “pretty responsible about not using it during school hours,” you can put “time restrictions … on [the phone] so she can't make calls from 8-2:15 or whatever time you choose.”

The biggest split of opinion was about the type of phone. Many parents provided their child with a smart phone and, amongst this group, the iPhone was the phone of choice. But a nearly equal number went “old school” for their child’s first phone. Christa Nunn explained that her son has “a sliding phone with which he can only phone or text. In opposite to his sister at that age, he hardly ever uses it and so far I have no concern.” Middlemiss says that her child has a “(cheap and cheerful) slide model with keyboard so easy to text but NO Internet, etc. With rebate it was $50.”

Meryl Gutterman bought her son a “flip phone so he can text and call, but no data.” Joanne Kolenovich admits that her son has “a regular phone with a keyboard…but [h]e is now asking for an iPhone and [w]e will probably upgrade him for his birthday in February.” Sandra Fischer adds, “My son could care less which type of phone he has because he rarely uses it.”   

The bottom line: my thoroughly unscientific survey revealed that most middle schoolers have cell phones, but that the type of phone varies greatly. As for me, the contract for my 3-G Droid expired in March. Maybe I’ll just pass that along to my middle schooler, have a long conversation about Internet access and texting, and take an upgrade for myself. The good news is that I have until the start of September to make that decision.    

Laura Torchio July 31, 2012 at 10:57 AM
Check out this video about Mike Lanza, author of Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play . He also blogs at Playborhood.com. Believe me, you'll love the concept - he writes about dozens of neighborhoods throughout North America that are doing innovative things to make a vibrant life for kids. In this video, he addresses cell phone use as an important step in building a young person's independence and getting them out into the neighborhood. I work on a program called Safe Routes to School with a goal to increase the number of students walking or biking to school, increasing their daily activity and preventing obesity related disease. One of the top fears of parents, aside from traffic, is "strangers". Mike Lanza talks about how cell phones not only help parents let go, but kids get to know their neighbors and neighborhoods better and are more apt to recognize and steer clear of anything out of the ordinary. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0v470Dc_Muo
Sidney Simon July 31, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Jessica, well done! The fact is, our children have too much access to everything and this can be a scary thing!
scarletxknight August 01, 2012 at 01:49 PM
no way. i understand times change and there are more things going on that may need parents to keep in contact with their kids but it will only go as far as you take it. a cell phone to keep up with your children is not necessary no matter how busy you or your children are -- the old fashion way could still work. be at a certain place at a certain time no matter what, use another adults cell phone and just go home when your finished and call from the house phone. i left middle school in 2002 and that worked well with us then. many of us had working parents, were involved in extra-curricular activities, walked home from school, everything. i know things change in 10 years but not that much.


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