Kid's First Cell Phone: One Mom's Hang Up

The Great Cell Phone Debate

I know I'm not the only parent whose kid traveled alone this summer. But when my 11-year-old's plane was delayed and it looked like he might miss his connecting flight, I felt like the only mom in the world who let her kid travel without a cell phone.

That little incident was a wake-up call. It wasn't that I thought, "OK, we're off to the cell-phone kiosk today!" It just made me realize that I'd been avoiding an issue I'd sooner or later have to confront. And it's not data plans or texting bills. What worries me is access -- to the Internet, to friends I don't know, to the interconnected digital world. Kids think of their phones as personal communications devices, but these devices link them to a world that's getting increasingly more public every day.

It's nearly impossible to find a cell phone that doesn't have a million bells and whistles. Even basic phones have cameras, texting, and Internet access. And while parental controls are available on some cell phones, or through wireless carriers and apps, they either cost money or aren't 100% effective.

Like any kid, my soon-to-be-sixth grader will enjoy playing around with these features, and a part of me wants to allow him the freedom to experiment.

But like everything in parenting, it's a delicate balance between inviting independence and being vigilant. The reality is that anyone can use a cell phone to broadcast anything that the device captures, including text messages, photos, videos, and even their location -- and that's where my concern truly lies.

Middle school is tough enough without the added pressure of worrying that someone might snap a photo of you acting like a dork and post it to their Facebook page. Even texts can be forwarded to dozens of phone numbers, so conversations you thought were private are now fodder for the entire class.

Cell phone do's and don'ts

What started as a quest to stay connected to my son is quickly becoming a lesson in privacy. Before handing the phone over, my son and I will be going over the following items in detail:

Assume that even "private" texts can become public. Kids can post texts or send them to other kids' phones.

Get permission. Before you snap someone's picture, take a video, or forward something, ask if it's OK.

Ask for privacy. Tell a friend, "don't take my picture."

Tag selectively. Don't "tag" friends (identify them in photos) until you have their permission, and don't tag them in anything that might embarrass them.

Never broadcast your location. Location-sharing isn't for kids.

Think before you post. Be selective about what you post online from your phone (or from any device, for that matter). Ask yourself how you would feel if it became public.

Don't respond to numbers you don't know. Verify the caller or texter. Marketers frequently text messages to kids' phones (and sometimes use their reply as an "opt-in" to whatever they're selling.)

How old do you think kids should be to get a cell phone? Have you (or your kid) ever regretted having a cell phone?