I have little doubt that whilst not every parent necessarily wrestles with this particular question, it certainly does at leastcross the mind of every thoughtful parent! An aspect of wisdom in parenting has always been the subject of giving and withholding. Parents want to give. Godly parents want to be wise.
For some parents, such as those with kids under the age of 10, for example, this is probably a question to which they can fairly quickly give the confident and determined answer: “No.” They realise that, even though their child may want a cell phone, and even though the phone could potentially play a constructive role in their child’s life and safety, children under the age of 10 are simply too young to handle such responsibility well enough and consistently enough to warrant them having access to their own phone.
In assessing whether or not you personally concur with that perspective, let’s put the following observations on the table:
First, having control of a cell phone instrument certainly does give the child access to his or her parents in the event of emergency.
Second, putting your child, of any age, on the end of a cell phone, does certainly facilitate information flow. If you were wondering what time to collect them from their friend’s house or from swimming lessons, a simple phone call to them could confirm that.
Third, even the least expensive handset has a value of several hundred rand, and therefore must be viewed as a “risk factor”—risk of theft, mugging, misplacing, etc. Even very responsible children simply do not need the pressure of protecting and safe-guarding an asset with such economic value.
Fourth, most children, from surprisingly early ages, are able to identify the “cool” phones (i.e. the sophisticated, expensive smart phones), and would probably not be impressed with, or therefore probably or potentially be disinclined to attach sufficient value to, a cheaper, entry-level phone that you intend for them to use as a simple communication device to get hold of mom or dad in an emergency.
Fourth, cell phones do emit radiation, and although the jury is still out regarding the real health issues involved here, parents do want to be wise in exposing their children to something that may turn out to be harmful from a physical health perspective.
Fifth, quite apart from concerns for physical health, smart parents will not be ignorant regarding the temptations inherent in an electronic device such as a cell phone: temptations toward distraction as they protect and manage and experiment with the cell phone; temptations regarding consuming potentially harmful and mind-shaping content communicated to them by means of the medium; temptations to become involved with undesirable and/or predatory individuals; temptations towards unwise use of the phone in the making of calls, sending of messages or the taking of pictures with the phone. Young children are simply unable to exercise discernment in this regard.
So, then, what can we conclude? We have a situation, potentially, where unwise parents steal their children’s innocence—years in which healthy children are imaginatively and creatively playing with dolls and insects and balls and other children in competitive recreational settings. Instead, these children are yanked by the culture and their well-intentioned but thoughtless parents into a world of sophistication and temptation that they simply are ill-equipped to handle.
Instead of developing their imagination as they care for their baby, choose the best fort for their gang to occupy as they defeat the enemy, dream about slotting the ball into the top right corner of the goals, or voraciously consuming their book to see how the story ends, some children are forced to wonder whether their cell phone battery needs charging, or if they have any new messages, or whether or not they have exceeded their airtime budget again, or whether it matters that Harry’s phone has a better camera than theirs.
Of course, all of the above can be discounted simply as my opinion. In expressing my opinion, I have wondered about any direct (implicit or explicit) Scriptural injunction or principles that could be used to support my view, or better still, which give rise to my view. Besides the references to wisdom and insight generally, or injunctions to fathers regarding exasperating their children, or prohibitions on idolatry, I have not been able to garner any Scripture to my defence. I suspect though, that most, if not all, parents would be in hearty agreement with what has preceded with reference to giving kids a cell phone too early. Common sense seems to militate against giving a child a cell phone too early.
The situation gets a little more tricky and contentious though, when we advance the discussion to consider the possibility of giving your children a cell phone too late. Is there an age by which wise parents ought to have entrusted their children with a cell phone? I would contend that there probably is.
We need to be aware of idealism and realism. In an ideal world, we could argue against things like peer-pressure and carnal desires, and could be excused for thinking that our kids are beyond fashion and personal ambition. The truth is, not all these things are necessarily bad. Wise parents are able to discern what they can fight and oppose and what they need rather to manage and channel in healthy and productive directions.
In my opinion, as a parent of two children who are almost both out of their teens, most children older than about 13 or 14 should be ready to be entrusted with the privileges and responsibilities of their own cell phone. In terms of procurement and choice of cell phone, a wise father would be aware of what kind of instrument will satisfy his child’s particular interests and ambitions, and what kind of package is affordable and reasonable for airtime, messaging and internet data usage. These are wonderful issues to involve the child in, engaging them in discussion and evaluation together. Then a budget can be set and the child can be involved, as a reward for progress made, results achieved or maturity shown, in the choice and procurement of the instrument.
Managing a cell phone battery and budget, and being expected to adhere to etiquette and cell phone protocols, are excellent fields in which to tackle issues of the heart and mind. These are the particular issues, and from the age of 13 is precisely the season to tweak social graces for young adults (which is what children older than 13 or 14 years really are). Set an age at which a child can expect to get a phone, and then expect (insist upon) a certain level of behaviour with reference to that phone. Withholding such privileges and responsibilities beyond that age can be insulting and demeaning to a young adult, in my view.
Wise parents ought to be thoughtful and consistent about the age at which such privileges can be expected, and they should be consistent and immovable in their expectations towards the child with reference to budgets being adhered to and responsibility being shown. Transgressions could and probably should conceivably result in confiscation and denial of such cell phone privileges for a season. Having one child with a cell phone and two others dreaming of the day that they will qualify age-wise to be entrusted with such tokens of trust is exactly what parents need as they raise their brood.
Savvy parents can then unobtrusively monitor usage of the phone (by means of itemised billing), shape appetites for games, gimmicks and gadgets, as well as be aware of dangers of the internet and unwise social contact. Where transgressions, unhealthy trends or threats are identified, these can be discussed and remedied in a productive and affirming way, giving ample opportunity for two-way conversation so as to lay bare the issues of the heart, which can then be exposed to the gospel. I am thinking here of distraction, fear, gossip, temptation, rudeness, etc. Social graces and personal management are issues that are caught (i.e. the effect of the parents’ example), but also taught (by direct confrontation and instruction).
We live in a world of the internet, instant communication and electronic instruments. In my view, parents are unwise to think that they can deny these facts or feel the need to shield their young adult offspring from such things completely or indefinitely.
Feel free to engage me or other parents on the subject. I would be interested to hear of your perspective or experience on the matter. Tim Challies in his excellent book, The Next Story, gives some outstanding advice and perspective on this general subject of electronic media. Just to give you an idea: With reference to training our children in their use of technology, he speaks of educating, fencing, mentoring, supervising, reviewing, trusting and modelling—very helpful stuff indeed!