Cell Phones – The Newest Member of the Family

By Maureen Costello Belt

Parents Rate The Pros and Cons of Mobile Communication

As Lancaster, Massachusetts mom Ann-Marie Baranofsky and her grandmother marveled over the arts, crafts and pastry entries at a recent local fair, they didn’t have to worry that this pleasant outing would be contaminated by cries of boredom from Ann-Marie’s husband and two sons.

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  • That’s because they – like many other families – have discovered the ease of staying in touch with cell phones, a phenomenon that is changing the way parents and kids interact
    . In fact, many parents are hearing the common refrain, “But everybody has one!” from children as young as 8 who are clamoring to join the “Can you hear me now?” crowd. Cell phone purchases remain a question of budget and convenience for parents, but other concerns have also arisen. What is the right age for a child to have a cell phone? Is a cell phone a reliable way to check on a child’s whereabouts and safety? And can cell phones teach children a sense of responsibility – or are they simply a crutch?

    The Baranofsky family answered most of those questions when their oldest son entered high school. They bought both sons cell phones – and haven’t looked back. The phones are in use, constantly. At the fair, instead of trooping around together to take in all the sights each family member wanted to see, Baranofsky’s two boys, Josh, 12, and Matt, 15, checked out the rides, while husband Ed sampled the concessions. The family was able to keep in touch by phone.

    “With everyone having their own cell phone, they’re able to go off and do their own thing,” says Ann-Marie. “You can call them and say, ‘OK, let’s meet at the Ferris wheel at this time,’ rather than getting worried about them not showing up and just waiting.”

    The explosion in cell phone sales to families like the Baranofskys has shifted for many the definitions of responsibility and togetherness among family members. The phones can be used to reach family members instantly in an emergency, or for the day-to-day logistics of, say, working out rides when families are scattered among football fields, friends’ houses, and schools.

    A False Sense of Security?

    But the proliferation of cell phone use hasn’t solved all family communication issues, and these phones may prove problematic for parents who rely on instant contact before a child is mature enough to be responsible and honest about his or her whereabouts.

    While cell phones seem an ideal alternative to dragging two teen boys through an arts and crafts show, even kids are raising questions about the reliability of cell phones for parental monitoring. A recent report by the public opinion poll group Public Agenda reveals that parents of children with cell phones may be lulled into a false sense of security.

    The Public Agenda poll shows that 60 percent of parents give their children more freedom and independence when the child has a cell phone. But one-third of the middle- and high-school-aged youths who were also polled admitted using cell phones to lie to their parents about their whereabouts. A third of the kids polled said they had, on occasion, not answered their cell phone when they knew a parent was calling

    Cell phone use within families has sparked the interest of other researchers as well. The Pew Research Center’s Internet and Family Life Project is working on a report, due out this spring, on how cell phone and technology use is actually changing family relationships. Pew researcher Amanda Lenhart says preliminary data reveals that about half of the nation’s teens have cell phones, although the majority are upper-middle-class, suburban kids.

    “Teens told us their parents like cell phones because they made them feel more in contact with their kids. Some said it feels like an electronic leash,” says Lenhart.

    “But the teens told us they use the phones the most to talk to their friends.”

    Many families find they purchase cell phones for their children with safety in mind, ie., being able to find out where a child is at any time. But they also soon find that the mere convenience of instant contact for many purposes – from appointment reminders to arranging rides with friends – outweighs the downsides of phone-service costs and even incidents of their kids using the phones irresponsibly.

    “There are hardly any pay phones around anymore,” says Baranofsky. “And if you do find one, it costs 75 cents to make a call.” Knowing her boys have immediate access to family outweighs any expense that may arise from them having their own phones, she says. 

    Peace of mind and economics play significant roles in the reasons why parents are purchasing cell phones for their children; the phones are as common an accessory as backpacks these days. Based on a recent survey by the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research company that studies communications and networking, 33 percent of children between ages 11 and 17 have their own cell phones today, up from 5 percent just five years ago. That number is expected to increase to 47 percent by 2007.


    Deciding Who Gets One, When

    The proper age for a child to handle the rights and responsibilities of cell phone use or ownership is best decided by a parent, according to child development professionals.

    Take the responsibility level of the child into consideration when determining whether he or she is ready for a cell phone, says Chris Gill, a social worker with the Concord Public Schools who also has a private practice in West Concord.

    An elementary-school child may misuse a cell phone by making silly, unnecessary calls just to use the phone. Middle-schoolers, who are dealing with rapid developmental and hormonal changes, “tend to have riskier behaviors,” Gill says, including wanting to be with friends a parent doesn’t approve of. Potential mishandling aside, Gill says that cell phones just may be the best technology available to assure parents that their children are safe while they are apart from each other.

    “Wireless phones are a rite of passage,” says Abra Degbor, spokesperson for the communications company, Verizon New England. “They are an invisible tether. The child is excited, and the phones satisfy a need for parents to be able to stay in touch with their baby.”

    Degbor believes cell phone ownership also has a developmental plus side for kids. Owning one could teach adolescents valuable lessons about budgeting and personal responsibility, she says. Usually, young people enter the wireless world through a family plan, where everyone shares a bucket of minutes. If the family goes over the minutes allowed, parents can look through the calls made to determine if their kids were overusing the cell phones. Other options are prepaid plans, where parents pay for a certain amount of minutes for their children’s phone use each month. If children exceed the limit before the next billing cycle, they learn to budget their time better the following month. Degbor says.

    “You can’t say it costs too much money because cell phones cost nothing now. You get the phones for free” under certain calling plans, says Brenda Delsener, a Concord mother of two teenagers and a 12-year-old, all of whom received their own phones last Christmas. Like most families, the Delseners use a calling plan that does not cost them money or monthly minutes when dialing one another.

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    “I have three kids in three different areas,” says Delsener, who is often dropping off one child at play rehearsal en route to watch another’s field hockey game. “In terms of communication, there are no more snafus at pick-up and drop-off.”

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    The Reality Behind the Technology
    class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Delsener was pleased to see that her children spend most of their allotted cell-phone minutes speaking to each other or their parents. But she agrees that cell phone lines may give a false sense of security. “Your kids can call and say, ‘Here I am at church,’” and they may be nowhere near one, she says. However, Delsener says she does not believe that technology, such as the global positioning system (GPS), which uses a cell phone or even landlines to electronically track a cell phone carrier’s whereabouts, can outsmart the adolescent brain. “Sneaky kids are sneaky kids,” she says, adding that she and her husband opted out of that feature.

    None of Pat LeVan’s three teenagers have GPS on their phones either, but she believes the technology may have been useful after two phones went missing for months. What happens when a child loses the phone a parent purchases? “They’re on their own,” says LeVan, also of Concord. In August, her son found his phone under a couch cushion. A month later, kids playing in the yard stumbled upon her daughter’s. LeVan says she would not rule out the tracking system, but would leave the decision to her husband, who works in the microchip industry.

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    Baranofsky said no to GPS out of principle. “I feel sometimes they have to have a little bit of privacy,” she says. And when her children cross boundaries – like the $30 increase a recent phone bill indicated, the offender must be made responsible, she says.

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    “They are not supposed to download games,” Baranofsky says of her kids and cell phones. “And when they do make that mistake, they do owe you the money.”

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    School Policies on Phones Vary

    SPAN style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">While cell phones have won the endorsement of many parents, school systems as a whole have yet to embrace the communication technology. Cell phone use was so prevalent among students at Austin Preparatory School, a sixth- through 12-grade Catholic school in Reading, that a policy on them was added to the student handbook two years ago, says Catherine Gannon, the school’s assistant headmaster.

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    “The kids may not have a cell phone on during the school day. It must be turned off,” Gannon says. Students are allowed to use any office telephone to contact parents. Violators, primarily those who forget to silence their phones before the morning bell, lose their phone for the school day. Repeat offenders surrender the phones to Gannon for two days, and the third time, offenders lose it for a week.

    SPAN style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Overall, Gannon says, the kids are very respectful of the rules and so far she’s only kept one student’s phone for two days. “I’m sure they use them in the ladies room,” Gannon says. “They’re everywhere.”

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    Jonathan Palumbo, spokesperson for the Boston Public Schools, says cell phone usage by students became such an issue a few years ago that some members of the Boston School Committee considered creating a citywide policy on them. “But, with 140 separate school buildings, that would be hard to police,” he says. Instead, each school devises and enforces its own rules.

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    Some schools have also noticed another development as cell phone use increases among students: cheating. Phones with cameras could be used to photograph the answers to a test, which the user could then transmit to another cell phone user in the classroom. The same could be done through “text messaging,” a way of “emailing” other cell phone users, using the phone’s touch pad to write messages.

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    Still, as convenient, economic and safety tools, cell phones among young people appear to be here to stay. Communication itself is ever-changing. While shopping one day, Baranofsky says she noticed what may become a very troublesome downside to cell-phone use.

    “I see these kids walking through the mall with friends around them and they’re talking on the phone to totally different people,” she says. “They’re not even talking to the people they’re with, so why are they even in that pack at the mall?”

    Parents may want to add cell phone usage to the ever-increasing list of public manners that children – indeed, even many adults – still need to learn.


    These Internet links help everyone from cell phone beginners to pros shopping for a better plan:  – An encyclopedia explains how cell phones work, and gradually introduces the reader to more detailed information.

    Phone scoop  – provides a glossary of cell phone terms, industry news and information on carriers. You can also share your thoughts or ask questions of other users on this site’s bulletin boards.

    Cell Phones/Pagers  – reviews the different sizes and designs of cell phones, as well as rate plans. There’s even a link to a simple test to determine which cell phone is right for you.


    Maureen Costello Belt is a freelance writer and the mother of two boys in Concord.