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Your call: How young is too young for a cell phone?
[November 11, 2010]

Your call: How young is too young for a cell phone?

Nov 11, 2010 (Erie Times-News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Is a kid in your house hoping to hear the jingle-jangle of a cell phone under the Christmas tree this year? With cell phones now topping the wish lists of kids still young enough to play with Barbies and Transformers, parents may wonder: Do I really want to put the world -- or access to it -- in the palm of my child's hand? How young is too young? There are no easy answers. What's right for one mature fourth-grader may be a catastrophic mistake for an eighth-grader with poor judgment.

"I recently referred to cell phones as 'the new Pandora's box,'" said Jeff Natalie, a licensed social worker at Family Therapy Practices in Erie and father of a 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, neither of whom have a cell phone, yet.

"I personally, and professionally, hate the implications of a child having a cell phone and how it can allow parents to relax from their responsibility to be mindful of their children's whereabouts," Natalie said while also conceding that he and his wife have agreed to allow their son to get a cell phone by the end of the year, if he keeps his grades up.

Because, let's face it -- good or bad -- cell phones are here to stay.

"I remember when my only goal was to have a phone in my room," said Stacy Dobbs-Camino, with a laugh. Dobbs-Camino is assistant principal at J.S. Wilson Middle School and the mother of two daughters, ages 14 and 10, both of whom have cell phones.

Dobbs-Camino said she and her husband, Dan Camino, allowed their daughter, Jaida, 14, to get her first cell phone when she was in seventh grade, but it came with many rules and conditions.

"I've found, as both a mother and a principal, that if you are proactive and make the rules clear right up front, nine times out of 10, they'll listen," Dobbs-Camino said. "Grades come first. If Jaida's grades drop to a C, the phone is gone." Rewards ring true Good grades and glowing teacher reports led to a gift-wrapped cell phone for Michaela Donnelly, 13, in 2009.

"We had no intention of getting her a cell phone," said Michaela's mother, Vikki Donnelly, of Erie. "But then we went to her school for parent-teacher conferences and the things they said about her -- how responsible she was and how she stayed out of all the schoolgirl drama -- made us realize that she could handle the responsibility." Vikki Donnelly said Michaela's phone came with a letter laying out the rules of usage and what violations would result in.

"I made it clear that I have the right to look at text messages or phone records at any time," Vikki Donnelly said. "If she gets grounded, the phone will be the first thing to go. If she uses it during school hours and gets in trouble, the phone's gone at home, too. If she loses it or breaks it, we won't replace it." Michaela says she understands her parents' rules and can live with them.

"I think the rules my parents laid down are pretty cool, I guess," Michaela said. "The only thing I don't like is not having unlimited texting. Most of my friends don't have Verizon, so I can't talk (via text message) to them as long, because I'd lose track of texts and go over my limit." Texting: The good, the bad, the ugly Ah, texting. Here's the real reason most kids want a cell phone. It's not to talk to their friends, it's to text-message their friends. And they do it almost constantly.

A recent study released by Nielson showed that, on average, teenagers are sending and receiving almost 3,400 texts every month.

"In the third quarter of this year, Verizon customers alone exchanged more than 183 billion text messages -- 6.2 billion more than the previous quarter," said Laura Merritt, regional public relations manager for Verizon Wireless.

There are those, including Jeff Natalie, who think that's a bad thing.

"When using texting for primary communication, cell phones may be creating an entire generation of adults who cannot interact socially with much resemblance of verbal skillfulness," Natalie said.

But some parents, including Sandy Reid, of Millcreek Township, say texting has improved communication with their kids.

"If it wasn't for texting, I don't think my daughter and I would be as close as we are," said Reid, whose daughter, Stephanie, 21, is a student at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

Reid gave Stephanie her first cell phone when she was in eighth grade and they quickly became accustomed to the cellular life.

"As she got older, neither one of us would go without our phones," Reid said. "It gave us both security. Now that she's in college, the cell phone is our basic means of communication." Donnelly said that texting has improved communication with her daughter as well.

"It's been advantageous as a parent," Donnelly said. "Michaela is more likely to tell me things in text message. If she's excited about something, she'll text me right away." Just a call away Improved communication with their child, be it text or an actual phone call, is a big advantage cited by divorced parents. A cell phone makes it easier for parents and family members to contact the child without the usual awkwardness of dealing with an ex, said Chris and Julie Borgia, divorced parents of Mia, 10.

"We were not sure she was ready for a cell phone, but we knew it would make staying in touch with her so much easier since she would be spending time at both parents' houses," Chris said. "Mia also spends a lot of time with both sets of grandparents in the summer, so, again, keeping track of her ... drove the decision to buy her a phone." Mia's phone is an additional line on her father's cell phone plan. She shares minutes with her father who said he and Julie made the decision to allow Mia unlimited texting, but do not allow any data usage or Internet access on Mia's phone.

Chris and Julie Borgia say that as time went on, more benefits became apparent.

"I use her phone to text her reminders to walk the dog or to come home because it's dinner time," said Chris. "Our other family members also appreciate the ability to make direct contact. My son Julian is in Minnesota and he can shoot his sister a text or call her anytime.

"It is also very nice to be able to text her when I am on my way to pick her up wherever she is, so she has time to get ready," said Julie.

Minimizing dangers That convenience, however, doesn't come without risk. Not only do parents have to worry about kids racking up big cell phone bills or losing a pricey phone, they have to be mindful of their child's safety and just how much freedom to allow them.

Sexting, or sending sexually explicit text messages or photos, along with social networking and high-tech bullying are all things that call for discussion before handing a child a phone.

"I went online and found a parent/child cell phone usage contract with topics for us to discuss," said Dobbs-Camino. "I take the same approach at home that I do at school. I want to give my daughters as much information about what they have and what is expected of them." Many wireless companies provide tools for parents to limit and manage their child's cell phone usage.

"Verizon Wireless offers controls that allow parents to decide what their child can do with her or her phone and create blocks for those things they don't want to allow," Merritt said. "They can restrict the times their child can use the phone, decide who they are allowed to call or text and put limits on the number of minutes or texts they can use during a billing cycle." Those controls come with a price tag. At Verizon Wireless, the parental controls that Merritt pointed out are an additional $5 a month. Some may say that's a small price to pay for peace of mind.

How young is too young? There's no recommended age at which a child is "ready" for a cell phone.

"The parent knows his/her child's level of maturity and responsibility," Merritt said.

"Age may only be a factor as it pertains to a child's need to safely remove themselves from a dangerous situation," said Natalie, who suggested that kids have no real need for cell phones until the teen years when they begin to experiment with risky behaviors and may need to call to get out of a jam.

If you do decide to get your child a phone, be sure you know how to use it and the features it comes with.

"Do not let your child become smarter than you are," said Reid. "You're just asking for trouble." HEATHER CASS can be reached at 870-1821 or by e-mail.

To see more of the Erie Times-News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, Erie Times-News, Pa. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit

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