But, Dad, Everyone Else Has One…

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have been debating this for some time but have yet to agree: When should we let our 10-year old daughter have a cell phone? She says all of her friends have one and, as far as I can tell, she’s right. I don’t feel that she needs one, nor do I think she’s old enough for a $400 piece of equipment. My wife disagrees and says our daughter needs a phone for safety. I’ve been holding my ground, but the pressure from wife and daughter is getting unbearable. What do we do?

A: Let’s start with a reality check. I’m betting that, despite what you’ve seen, not all of your daughter’s friends actually do have a phone. According to a recent study by the National Consumers League, only 56% of 8-12-year olds (“only” is a relative term).That said, as the dad of a 10-year old daughter, I feel you. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all, black-and-white solution. Cost definitely figures in somewhere, but it’s mostly about maturity. Some 9-year olds might be able to handle the responsibilities of having a phone while some 14-year olds might not be.

Eighty-four percent of parents who got their kids a cell phone did so for safety reasons. 73% said it was so they could track their child’s after-school movements. But while those sound noble, they may not be based in fact.

For example, while having a phone would give your child a way to contact you if she needed help, that same phone gives everyone and anyone a way to contact her. Specifically, it can make it easier for others to bully your child—or for her to bully others. And while a phone’s GPS may allow you to track where your daughter goes, it can’t tell you what she’s doing or whom she’s doing it with. As your daughter careens toward adolescence, you need to know who her friends are and what she does with them. If she’s got her own phone, she can be friends with whomever she wants (and for 10% of kids her age, that involves sexting).

Before you make your final decision about whether to get your daughter a cell phone, sit down with your wife and discuss these questions:

  • Does your daughter truly need to communicate for safety reasons? Perhaps she rides the bus to and from school by herself.
  • Is your daughter responsible enough to keep that phone safe at all times? It is an investment, after all. If the answer to the first question is Yes, but it’s No to this one, consider an old-style flip phone, which you can pick up at most stores for $20.
  • Is your daughter mature enough to comprehend the myriad threats that having a phone opens her up to?
  • Does your daughter want a phone simply because it’s a status symbol or for social reasons? Neither of these is an acceptable reason, by the way.
  • Can you afford to add another line to your phone bill? What about data? What about text messages?
  • Does your daughter understand the limited number of minutes she’ll have or the number of text messages she can send?
  • Would your daughter be likely to share her (or your) personal information with strangers or install apps that might give away her physical location?

Take these questions seriously and answer them honestly—about the way things are now, not the way you’d like them to be. Ultimately, the decision belongs solely to you and your wife, not to your daughter, and certainly not to her friends.