For many tweens heading into middle school, the transition from elementary school won’t be marked only by new teachers, class schedules and locker assignments but also by a gleaming new phone.
Deciding whether a middle schooler is ready to take on mobile phone responsibility is a personal decision for each family. The device, whether smart or basic, brings up a host of questions and concerns from parents, especially as summer days turn into structured school days and packed after-school hours.
An April Pew Research Center study reported that 88 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have or have access to some sort of phone; 73 percent have or have access to a smartphone. Those findings match up with the typical age for a student’s first phone: around 12 for a basic cellphone and older than 13 for a smartphone.
Cost, maturity, time management and other factors play into the decision to give a child a phone. Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that advocates for family education on media and technology, delves into those topics on its website.
“We believe it’s important to consider how your kid is going to be using it,” said Common Sense Media parenting editor Caroline Knorr. “Are kids going to be able to handle it?”
Knorr noted that many teachers are starting to include technology in the classroom to track schedules, homework, assignments and projects. Some are relying on phone apps, such as Google Docs, to share reports and submit answers, along with other phone-based learning tools. But, as everyone knows, social apps and texting are constant temptations that can distract kids from schoolwork.
Every classroom, school district and even, say, Boy Scout troop may roll out different expectations for phone use. But for every situation, Knorr said, parents need to stay consistent on setting their own rules.
CTIA, a nonprofit that represents wireless communications companies, advocates for healthy digital media consumption. Its Growing Wireless platform is geared toward parents and kids using digital devices. Like Knorr, Jamie Hastings, CTIA vice president of external and state affairs, says that giving a child a phone is a family decision, one that continues to skew toward younger ages as the devices drop in price.
Hastings stressed that once a child is given a device, it’s up to the parent to “understand how they are using” it. Keep checking in and communicating, she advised.
For parents whose tweens are reaching that stage when they’re not talking as much to mom and dad, the device might offer potential gains, said Liz Kolb, clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, who researches education technologies, with a focus on mobile phones. Using the very device that seems to be pushing your son or daughter away might be the best way to communicate. Send a text to thaw the communication freeze, Kolb advised.
“Middle school is a very important time for parents to be in tune with what their children are doing,” she said, which includes their online and mobile interactions and decisions. This is when talking about phone use is pertinent.
She recommended creating a social contract. If a child wants to download a new app, he or she should be checking in with mom or dad and setting it up together.
Supervised phone use is a way to monitor kids’ digital decisions while giving them responsibility and freedom.
“It’s actually safer if we can have our children come to us,” Kolb said. “As we know, when we don’t permit our children to use things, they will find a way.”
A wealth of online information can help guide and inform parents. Think of these as tools to help everyone manage the digital overload.
▪ CTIA’s Growing Wireless (www.growingwireless.com): The CTIA and Wireless Foundation’s resource site covers topics from cyberbullying to online privacy. Find a parents guide to mobile phones, checklists and a safety test to see how much you know about phone safety issues.
▪ Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org/cell-phone-parenting): The digital education nonprofit’s website has a section devoted to cellphone issues, with an FAQ about responsible cellphone use, phone readiness, rule-making, deciding what phones and plans to purchase and keeping tabs on your kids on their devices.
▪ Your cellphone provider: Carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon offer safety tips and advice for parents through their websites, or link to other guides and sites, including the National Cyber Security Alliance’s Stay Safe Online guide (www.staysafeonline.org and type “parental controls” in the search field).