Teenage bullying over the cell phone and over social networking has driven yet another schoolgirl to suicide in this country, and blogs by child rearing experts are on fire with how a parent might deal with this epidemic of wanton cruel behavior by older children. One of the most popular themes to these discussions, predictably, happens to exist around the wisdom of enforcing rules of phone usage. Cell phones for children should be special privileges that they can only ask for at times that parents approve of; and sometimes, children should be denied this kind of freedom, is how the thinking goes. How fair is this? Should all children be kept in line this way?
Children need to be taught the decorum they need to observe when they get to carry a cell phone, or get to go online. They need to see that there is a difference between being given a phone to be in touch with family and friends, and being given a smartphone that gives complete access to the Internet, that allows them to lie about their age to get on Facebook, to take inapppropriate pictures and share them, and even indulge in cyber bullying. For some strange reason, parents can be extremely strict about monitoring what goes on, on the home computer in the child's room, installing nanny software to keep an eye on any inappropriate behavior that might crop up. And yet these same parents will not think twice about buying completely internet-enabled cell phones for children with no particular advice, rules or guidance.
The reason has to be that we see cell phones for children as basically devices to speak on. Children don't see them that way - research shows that young people these days use their phones for activities other than voice calls about 75% of the time. So should you give your child a cell phone? It depends on how much of a hands-on parent you are. If you have the time and the patience to have a proper in-depth continuing conversation about what happens in the world when children forget their manners in the anonymity of a bright screen, it could be okay.
Your children have to see that cell phones for children, even in today's permissive environment, are a privilege - as with anything else. You wouldn't put a child in a car without months of great advice and parenting, and without a license. You shouldn't put your child in charge of the cell phone either when it's a device that can cause grievous emotional injury to others. Children aren't really known for being independent thinkers. If your child has friends who love to make their power known by sending out threatening or obscene cell phone messages, in your child's mind, it becomes not as taboo as it seems to you. Bullying is often done by children who are not bullies.
Cell phones for children need to come with a good deal of self-education for parents too. You can't give your child anything that you don't completely well know how to operate yourself. And your child needs to know that you'll be looking to make sure that there is no bullying going on. Tell them that everything they type into their school computer too is monitored by a school official. There has been just too much sadness spread by what teenagers can do when they feel powerful and aren't asked to account for their actions. It's time that we saw cell phones for the potentially dangerous devices that they are.