Cell Phones—Christmas Gift or Real Turkey?

Let’s face it—we are social creatures. The rapid rise in the use of cell phones is a testament to that fact. We want the ability to reach just about anyone at just about any time and any place. Our kids are no exception. The cell phone allows us to do that. But is the cell phone an appropriate piece of technology for a young person?

We lead busy lives, and our kids are more involved in activities, both in and out of school, than ever before. We need and want to stay in touch should there be a change in plans or an emergency. The cell phone gives us the ability to stay connected when we are on the move. Cell phones have become much more than just ordinary telephones: in addition to being portable, they are smaller and more technically sophisticated. And that is why their use in schools has become so controversial.

When they were first developed, cell phones and other mobile technologies were usually associated with big business. Sadly, they also became popular with people engaged in illegal activities. For that reason, many public institutions, including schools, banned them. However, with time, the cell phone has gradually been accepted as a useful piece of technology. In 2005, there were an estimated 2.12 to 2.16 billion cell phone users worldwide, 16.6 million of them in Canada.

Whether cell phones belong in the hands of school-aged children is the subject of much debate. Supporters argue that advancements in technology are always good and that new technologies should be embraced, not regulated. Detractors contend that cell phones create a virtual world of potential safety hazards that are almost impossible for parents and educators to monitor.

Parents, for the most part, are glad of the technology because it gives them a quick and efficient means of contacting their kids in the event of an emergency, whether at school or after hours. Most schools respect parents’ need to maintain contact with their children. However, educators are divided on the issue of allowing students to have cell phones, pointing out that the technology raises a number of issues.

First it means monitoring cell phone behaviour, not an easy task given the advent of web‑ready cell phones and text messaging. Second, cell phones can distract students from carrying out other tasks—such as driving a car—safely. Third, some people believe that cell phone use increases the likelihood of developing certain types of cancer. Although recent studies have consistently noted no connection between cancer and cell phone use, the matter continues to be debated.

In the end, what are parents to do when their child begs for a cell phone for Christmas? “Come on Mom/Dad, all of my friends have one!” are words all too familiar to most parents. Like any technology, cell phones have the potential for both good and bad. First, parents should consider the cost of such a purchase. Yes, the phones themselves are often “free” in many plans. However, these plans usually come with many restrictions that, in the end, can result in a huge bill. Parents should check the details with their provider before signing any contract.

Second, parents need to consider their child’s readiness for accepting such a responsibility. Because children mature at different rates, there isn’t one “right” age at which a child can be said to be ready to use a cell phone safely. A possible guideline might be that children who are old enough to stay home alone or to baby-sit are likely mature enough to accept the responsibilities associated with owning a cell phone. Such milestones imply that the child has assumed an increased level of responsibility and, as a result, has a greater need to stay in touch.

Finally, parents need to familiarize themselves with the regulations concerning cell phone use that most schools and school boards have adopted. These regulations are intended to protect the integrity of the educational environment so that it is both safe and conducive to learning. For specific policies on cell phone use, parents should consult their school board, contact their school principal and/or check out the website of their child’s school.

In the end, each parent will need to decide when (or whether) his or her child is ready for the responsibility and freedom associated with owning a cell phone.

Additional information about children and cell phones is available from these websites:

The Media Awareness Network
A good source of information on cell phone use and its impact on young people and the school environment.

Canada Safety Council
This website discusses and presents statistics on the major driver distractions, including cell phone use.

National School Safety and Security Services
This Ohio-based, school-safety consulting firm is not affiliated with any product or "strategic alliance." The firm’s website contains some interesting perspectives on cell phone use in schools.

iParenting Media
This website discusses the etiquette of cell phone use and describes some of the potential dangers.