Cell phones are an integral part of kids’ lives. According to research by C&R Research, 22 percent of young children own a cell phone (ages 6-9), 60 percent of tweens (ages 10-14), and 84 percent of teens (ages 15-18. And cell phone companies are now marketing to younger children with colorful kid-friendly phones and easy-to-use features. According to market research firm the Yankee Group, 54 percent of 8 to12 year olds will have cell phones within the next three years.

With cell phone usage growing rapidly for children and teens, we offer the following information and tips for parents:

The Upside to Cell Phones

Health and Wellness Help: Programs that deliver personalized text messages that help a person with dieting, remembering to take medications, or encouraging them to quit smoking are gaining in popularity. For instance, one company is exploring the ability to send photos of what you are eating via your phone’s camera so you can communicate with a nutrition advisor about that food.

Safety: The benefits of cell phones in emergency situations is undisputed. The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 74 percent of Americans say they’ve used a cell phone in an emergency. In addition, some emergency agencies are encouraging cell phone users to put “ICE” (in case of emergency) in front of names of people in your cell phone directory whom emergency personal should call in case of an emergency. New phones using GPS technology allow parents to track the location of a phone and thus, hopefully, their child.

Convenience: No one can argue the convenience of being able to reach your child immediately, or a child being able to reach his parent, in the case of a sudden change of plans. Also, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that approximately 41 percent of cell phone users say they multitask by making phone calls while commuting or waiting – a time-saving option almost unheard of 10 years ago.

The Downsides of Cell Phones

Health Risks

  • Mental health: Another study looked at addictive, problematic use of cell phones and found a link between low self-esteem and problem cell phone use. A study measuring the link between cell phones and mental health found that teens who used cell phones the most were more likely to be anxious and depressed.
  • Bullying: Text messaging is increasing used by bullies to torment their victims. Cyberbullying, psychological harassment in text or instant messaging, is more often perpetrated by girls, who initiate inappropriate messages or spread damaging gossip.
  • Eye strain and “digital thumb”: Just like other repetitive strain injuries that can result from computer use and other repetitive tasks, these conditions can result from focusing continually on a small screen and typing on small buttons.
  • Bacteria: Because of the close proximity to the mouth where germs can be passed from breathing, coughing and sneezing, most cell phones are crawling with bacteria. Additionally, many people use their phone everywhere, even in the bathroom.
  • Brain tumors and low sperm counts: While some research investigating the effects of electromagnetic radiation from cell phones in close proximity to the body have found statistical associations, other studies have found no increased risk.
  • Lack of sleep: One study found that some teen cell phone users are likely to be woken at night by incoming text messages or calls, and are therefore more likely to be tired and less able to focus throughout the day.

Dishonesty: The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 39 percent of cell users ages 18-29 say they are not always truthful about where they are when they are on the phone.

Expense: Parents often experience sticker shock when they receive the bill for their child’s cell phone. Special ring tones, text, picture and video messaging, downloadable games, overage minutes and connecting to the Internet can all be very expensive and heavily used by teens.

What Parents Can Do

  • Discuss your child’s motivations for having a cell phone: Talking about its use for safety rather than as a status symbol or way to fit in can be important. It may not only cut down on your teens airtime minutes, but it could initiate a conversation about his or her life, for example, feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and who they feel they need to be talking to – and when and why.
  • Develop a set of rules and responsibilities as a cell phone user: In providing your child with a cell phone, you have the right to set the rules for its use : “Always answer calls from parents immediately.” “Always identify where and with whom you are.” Many parents set limits for younger children’s use and have their teens take responsibility for their own cell phone bills.
  • Discuss appropriate circumstances, places and uses for cell phones with your child: 82 percent of people report having been annoyed by loud or personal cell phone conversations in public. Don’t let your child be one of these irritants.
  • Establish rules around cell phone use at night: Require your children to turn cell phones off at night and keep them in a common area rather than allowing them to take them into their rooms, where they can talk or text message late into the night.
  • Consider a child-friendly cell phone for your child: Some phones made especially for kids allow you to control whom your child can call, or offer only “mom” and “dad” buttons so no other calls can be made.
  • Teach your kids to only answer calls or view text messages from people they know: Like the internet, cell phones are becoming a vehicle not only for bullying, but also for sexual predators and for scams.
  • Help your kids save money: Consider purchasing a pre-paid plan with a limited number of minutes for your teens, and remind them to “budget” their minutes. Also, turning off text messaging and internet capabilities on your child’s phone will help keep bills low.

© Center on Media and Child Health, 2007

Resources on this topic
Cell Phones for Pre-Teens
Heavy Cell Phone Use Associated with Unhappiness

San Francisco Chronicle
Warning Over "Bullying by Mobile"

BBC News
Teens Harassed Electronically

ABC7 - Chicago
Intensity of mobile phone use and health compromising behaviours
Space invaders: The negotiation of teenage boundaries through the mobile phone
Psychological predictors of problem mobile phone use
Teenage girls and cellular phones: Discourses of independence, safety, and 'rebellion'
Impact of the mobile phone on junior high school students' friendships in the Tokyo metropolitan area
Case-control study of the association between the use of cellular and cordless telephones and malignant brain tumors diagnosed during 2000-2003
Back from the beach but hanging on the telephone? English adolescents' attitudes and experiences of mobile phones and the internet
Are internet and mobile phone communication complementary activities amongst young people? A study from a 'rational actor' perspective
Association between cellular-telephone calls and motor vehicle collisions
Text messaging as a cause of sleep interruption in adolescents, evidence from a cross-sectional study
Gender differences in social network development via mobile phone text messages: A longitudinal study
Cigarettes and mobile phones: Are they complementary or substitutable products?
Do u smoke after txt? Results of a randomised trial of smoking cessation using mobile phone text messaging
Kids and Cell Phones