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.