Screen time: Should your kid have a cell phone?

David Shames' family held out until he was 14 to give him a cell phone, but he started lobbying for one at age 9. Photo: Ryan jones David Shames’ family held out until he was 14 to give him a cell phone, but he started lobbying for one at age 9. Photo: Ryan jones

Whether you’ve allowed your kids to have their own mobile device or you’re still deciding if you should, they’ve probably already asked for one. At least that’s what Allyson Shames says her oldest son, David, started doing before she finally caved.

“He was making us Keynote presentations, justifying why he felt he needed one by the time he was 9 or 10,” she says. “There was a new presentation every couple of months.”

Shames, a mother of three, says she held out until David was 13 before giving him a cell phone for his birthday, but he, “a very tech-y kid,” had started using technology at an early age. Shames remembers him programming the VCR as a 2-year-old and sneaking out of bed six years later to use the family computer.

“When he was 8, he got up when the rest of us were asleep and tried to log into the family computer,” she says. “When he couldn’t get beyond the password screen, he restarted the machine and hacked in via the boot drive, reset the password and got in.”

Millennials are known as the first generation to grow up with technology, and maybe that’s what makes them so eager to use it. But Shames is happy with the advancements technology has provided for her family.

Before using a cell phone, David also used an iPad mini for about a year. This purchase, Shames says, was a product of her son’s interest in recording music. He practiced the drums, guitar and keyboard and used the tablet to record himself playing at home. David would then bring the recording into his teacher’s studio, where he was also able to record lessons and take them home with him.

Shames, whose two other children are ages 8 and 11, says technology has helped her family stay organized, too. David, who is part of the ski club with his brother, can text her from Wintergreen if they’re running late or returning early, and Shames says she’s able to keep other parents updated this way. David also has access to the shared family calendar and can collaborate on grocery lists from his cell phone.

“One of the biggest advantages has been in social relationships,” Shames says. “For so many kids, the nighttime Instagram posts and texts and chats are equivalent to the notes we passed in math class 25 years ago. They’re building connections.” She adds that the kids without devices are unintentionally excluded from those opportunities.

Some parents would prefer to hold out a little longer, like local mom Elvira Hoskins.

Hoskins’ cell phone policy is the same as Shames’—her 13-year-old has one and her other two children will also get cell phones when they become teenagers. She says the technology does come in handy now that her daughter is more independent, but she may have been wrong for assuming that a cell phone would enhance her daughter’s safety.

“It is also a false sense of security,” she says, remembering a time her daughter’s phone died after a concert and she wasn’t able to reach her. And she calls it heartbreaking that her daughter “used to be an avid reader, and now she mostly spends her downtime looking at her phone or computer.”

With the growing presence of technology in schools, parents say it can be difficult to determine when their child is using their tablet or computer for schoolwork or for their own entertainment.

Laurel Henneman, mother of 13- and 15-year-old boys, says only her oldest son has a cell phone, which he received when he entered high school. While she doesn’t identify as being pro- or anti-technology, she says providing kids with technology has plenty of positives and negatives you’ll want to consider “before you let the genie out of the bottle.”

Tech tips

The area moms we spoke to have some great advice for parents whose kids are craving a smartphone. Take it from them.

Have the talk. Hoskins advises initiating conversations about social media, “from predators to hurting a friend’s feelings to how you would handle feeling hurt or in awe of someone’s highlights they post to social media compared to in real life.”

Keep an eye out. Shames says, “Follow your kids on Instagram so you get a window into what’s going on with the social circle beyond your child, or beyond what they may talk about when they get to the age where every question is met with a grunt.”

Set limits. Across the board, parents say it’s important to limit a kid’s screen time and prohibit them from taking their phone or tablet to bed with them. Several parents, like Henneman, send their kids to a technology-free sleepaway camp over the summer.—S.B.

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