Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Do cell phones really make our kids safer?

Our seventh grader informed me today that he is the only kid he knows without a cell phone. And while he didn't have the audacity to ask for one, he did make it clear that he feels different.

I have no intention of getting our child a cell phone to conform to peer pressure. This same child only got a video game system at age 12 (everyone else got one at age 6 or something), gets no electronic time during the school week, and can't digest wheat, corn or dairy. He's used to being somewhat different (note: he's very well-liked by his peers and not at all lonely--he's also a voracious reader).

It seems to be received wisdom that cell phones make our kids safer, but is that really true? The main justification (and believe me, I understand the impulse) seems to be the idea that we can always reach our kids if they have a cell phone, and they can always reach us. Therefore, the theory goes, we know where they are--but do we really?

Actually, I would posit that cell phones in children's hands potentially decrease safety in a couple of different ways, particularly as kids get older and more independent in their movements.

1) because it's not tied to a land line, we actually have NO idea where a kid is. We are entirely going by what they tell us on the phone. Hence, when he says he's staying over at Johnny's house, he could be at a party at Tiffany's house, or he could be in San Francisco, or he could be in a crack house, or he could be with Tiffany in a crack house in San Francisco.

Where are all these places that our children are hanging out that don't have telephone lines anyway? If he's anywhere I want him to be, my kid can use the real phone or use a pay phone (yes, they still have 'em, I've been checking). That way I have a real number coming up that I can call back. I can talk to a parent. Or I have independent corroboration.

2) if he's not near a land line because he's in transit, he probably shouldn't be on the phone. Does it increase my kid's safety for him to be on a cell phone instant messaging someone when he's crossing the street or on the bus (or, God forbid, he's 12, driving)? No. It decreases his awareness of where he is, which could get him lost and depending on how nice the cell looks, it might make him an increased target for mugging (cell phones and ipods remain the most popular items for theft, robbery, and crime that might not otherwise happen).

3) can I really reach him whenever I want? answer: no. He has to answer the phone. I have watched the existence of a cell phone increase parents' anxiety as they leave message after message and don't hear back from their teen. Therefore, the feeling of security (which is the real reason we buy these things, we can't buy real security, but we think we can buy feelings) dissipates and we feel anxious and scared.

In the old days, you didn't feel anxious and scared when you couldn't reach Johnny instantly. You felt anxious and scared when Johnny didn't come home or check in at the agreed upon times or when Johnny wasn't over at his friend's house which you called by "dialing" a number. All of these options are still available. I would rather have him check in and then be able to call a responsible adult on their cell phone and have them tell me what my child is up to.

4) And finally, our son tells me that the school justifies kids bringing their cells to school because it's a way for them to say one final goodbye or I love you to us as they die in a massive earthquake, fire or terrorist attack.

OH MY GOD, that makes me feel SO much safer!!!! Thank you cell phones, what would we do without you?

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