Cell phones were created so adults could carry phones with them, in their pockets and purses, and make calls from wherever they happened to be. No longer would they have to search for a phone booth. They could take their business and connection to the world with them, wherever they went. But today, according to a Pew Resource Center survey conducted in 2011, 77% of American teens own a phone. A separate survey by Nielsen revealed that teens, on average, send more than three thousand texts per month. The practicality of the cell phone has turned into an out-of-control craze.
I surveyed the parents of fifth through eighth graders at my school as to their opinions about children owning phones. From those who supported cell phone use, two main rationales emerged: a child needs a phone to communicate with family members, and, in an emergency situation, a phone is a valuable resource for a child. In theory, these are valid reasons; in practice, they don’t apply to most teens’ lives or circumstances.
In general, teens are not using their phones for these reasons. According to Nielsen, most of teenagers’ three thousand texts per month are to friends, socializing in ways not crucial to their safety or helpful to their people skills. As one CTL parent put it, “If they have one [a phone], they will use it as they see fit, perhaps not as intended.”
Connecting with one’s family and friends is an important part of a teen’s life. Through conversations with friends, kids learn how to interact, argue, think, and feel for themselves. But these days, phones are replacing face-to-face conversations, and children are losing important social skills. The loss of these skills can hamper a child’s ability to develop solid relationships with peers and adults. The text lingo—full of emoticons, misspellings, and slang—is a language that hurts people’s ability to communicate successfully.
These are not the only concerns about cell phone usage among teens. The average cost of a phone is $47.16 per month, according to the CTIA Wireless Association. In some cases, Smartphones can cost double, triple, even quadruple that. Most teens with phones are not able to pay such a hefty bill, so it falls onto their parents, who have to shoulder costs of up to five hundred dollars a year, just so kids can have fun and talk with friends.
Another problem with a cell phone is that, for young teens especially, it can become dangerous. Phones can be a gateway to interactions with undesirable individuals. Inappropriate images or messages put children in uncomfortable and unsafe conditions, and cyberbullying and sexting occur more than most parents realize.
I have never owned a cell phone. While there have been times when it would have been convenient to be able to contact others, it was never vitally important to my well-being. In these situations I was able to borrow the phone of an adult or wait for my parents. It has never been problematic—or humiliating—to be a child of the 21st century without a phone, even as many of my friends have received their own .
I acknowledge that there are particular situations in which a cell phone is a necessity for a particular teen. Children of divorced parents and children living in large cities or with long commutes might use phones to their advantage. If parents must be able to communicate with their children, there are affordable phones that make calls and text but don’t take pictures, surf the Web, or play games, as a Smartphone does.
Cell phones are powerful devices that—used properly—make important connections between adults and the world around them. In the hands of teenagers, these same phones become toys that diminish social connections and lure teens away from reality. Children should be protected from phones until the device is an absolute necessity and can be handled safely and properly.