Doug Luce, father of two middle-school children in Seattle, long believed that kids needed a cellphone about as much as they needed a Wii or a handgun.
But now that he has one child who has a cellphone, and one who doesn't, Luce firmly believes that middle school isn't too early to carry a phone.
"I feel disconnected from the child who doesn't have a phone," Luce said.
In fact, Luce said, his original plan was to wait until his younger child reached age 12 before buying her a phone. But after she borrowed her older brother’s phone for a day, Luce changed his mind.
"She wanted to walk from her day camp to the park a mile away. I told her to go ahead. She'll text me when she leaves and when she gets to the park. She can call me if she runs into trouble," he explained. "Without the cellphone, I would have said no to the park trip."
What age do you start?
Like many parents, Luce now sees cellphones as a safe way to let middle-school children develop a sense of independence. But is it really a good idea for preteen children to carry around their own phones?
"My recommendation, based on child development and professional experience, is that parents should not even think of getting a cellphone for a child younger than 12," said Kevin J. Roberts, Detroit-based author of "Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap" (Hazelden, 2010) and a speaker on cellphones, the Internet and video games.
"If a parent has a situation in which phone access become imperative from time to time, many families keep a spare pay-as-you-go phone to be used sparingly," Roberts said.
One of the biggest problems with personal cellphones is that today's children quickly presume technology is a right. That's an idea that Roberts thinks needs to be nipped in the bud right away.
"Whenever engaging in any discussion on these matters," he said, "parents must first set an early tone with children that technology, especially smart/cellphones, is a privilege."
There's also the matter of whether or not a child is responsible enough to be carrying around a phone.
"Of course," Roberts said, "children always covet the responsibility-linked privileges of those who are older, which is why some children, as young as 7, are asking for their own phones."
It can be a good thing
Middle school is a total game changer on many levels. This can work against parents if they're not careful, said Kim Estes, a Seattle-based parent educator who teaches classes on middle-school safety and runs the website SavvyParentsSafeKids.com.
"Whether or not to allow middle-school kids to carry a cellphone is one of the top three questions I get, along with when is it safe to leave our child at home alone and when can they go to the mall alone," Estes said.
In middle school, tweens spend more time with peers and less time with adults, meaning there is often no adult readily available. It's also the age when peer pressure begins to push hard, and kids are more likely to begin engaging in risky behavior while confiding less in Mom and Dad.
Unlike Roberts, Estes thinks cellphones can be positive for preteens.
"Providing a cellphone to your middle-schooler can provide a communication tool that will keep you in contact with your child and will allow for them to 'fly under the radar' with their friends if they are concerned about drawing negative attention to themselves," said Estes.
If a parent should decide that a phone for his or her tween is okay, the phone shouldn't be handed over unconditionally. A child should accepta cellphone under certain restrictions — for example, respectful behavior to parents, grades maintained and a balanced lifestyle that includes physical activity.
"Children at this age are not adept at self-regulation, so I recommend going to your cellphone company's website and turning the phone off after 10 p.m. and during the school day," Roberts said. "If your child needs to contact you during the school day, he or she can do what we had to do: go to the office."
(Check your child’s school’s policy on cellphone use. Many schools don't allow phones to be used, or even turned on, during school hours.)
Estes advises parents to start small and go slowly when it comes to cellphones.
"Kids don't need a smartphone right away," she said. "What they need is a communication tool to reach you in case of emergency."
Rules of the road
Of course, most kids want a smartphone from the get-go. If you decide to go this route for your middle-school child, Roberts recommends the following security measures:
1) Install monitoring software on the home computers the child will be using. PC-based software called I Am Big Brother lets you secretly monitor all incoming and outgoing emails, instant messages, chats, websites and more. Once the product is downloaded and installed, it is totally hidden and only you can access it.
Products of this sort are sometimes referred to as parental-control software and can be downloaded from the Internet. Other popular brands include Family Cyber Alert and PC Tattletale.
2) Advanced Parental Control is another piece of parental-control software, but one which does a bit more than just eavesdrop on communications. It also lets parents restrict Internet use to certain time periods and schedules and monitors keystrokes and logins.
3) Install a parental cellphone-monitoring product to keep an eye on your child when he or she is on the go. Families have been having good luck with the mSPy smartphone-monitoring application ( http://www.kidsecured.com/ ) for Android and BlackBerry phones. (The iOS app requires that an iPhone be jailbroken.) You simply download it to the target phone and you can find out anything that has happened using that phone, including text messages.
4) With deceptive adolescents, such types of programs and applications are the products of choice. Those kids are sometimes smarter than their parents, and such programs are often the only things that work.
5) The smartphone represents the most potent carrot parents can dangle before their children nowadays. Link smartphone privileges to performance in school, household chores, being home for dinner every night or whatever goal you as a family deems important.
Talk to your cellular carrier about online options that allow you to restrict smartphone use during certain periods. And if your child is not performing up to expectations, shut that phone off.