Q. What are the pros and cons of cell phones and texting in terms of school safety? Isn’t it a good idea for my middle school daughter to have a cell phone with her at school in case of an emergency? I like knowing I can reach her. And what age do you recommend that a kid get a phone in case of emergencies?

A. Whether we like it or not, cell phones and texting are part of young people’s lives. When it comes to school safety there are definitely pros and cons. On the positive side, parents may be more likely to get a faster update from their child about their safety in the event of an emergency if their child has a cell phone; although in a large scale crisis the phone lines will likely be tied up. Parents can also use phones to check in or monitor their child’s whereabouts after school or on particular nights as they get older. These types of communications between parent and child can be helpful on a daily and situational basis.  However, it’s important to be aware of your school’s policy regarding cell phones and their use in schools.

Waiting to give your child a phone

Alternatively, there are several reasons to wait as long as possible to get your child a cell phone. First, the World Health Organization/International Agency for Research on Cancer just classified the radiofrequency emitted by wireless phone use as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”  The May 31, 2011, press release stated that “this has Teenage girl texting.relevance for public health, particularly for users of mobile phones, as the number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children.”  Moreover, in 2008 the National Academies suggested that more research was needed on the effects of wireless devises among juveniles and children, particularly on newer technology that includes texting and web-surfing.

Second, youth also use their cell phones to engage in cyber bullying and “sexting” (sending inappropriate texts or pictures via their cell phone).  According to the Teens and Mobile Phones 2010 report by Pew Research Center, about 75 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 own a cell phone. This number is up from 45 percent in 2004. The study also found that of the youth who own a cell phone, 24 percent have been bullied or harassed through text messages and phone calls, 83 percent use their phones to take pictures, and 64 percent share pictures with others. The Pew Research Center Teens and Sexting 2009 report found that while a small percentage of youth are “sexting,” the behavior increases with age.

Specifically, the report found that of youth ages 12 to 17 who own a cell phone:

  • 4 percent reported that they sent a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of themselves to someone else using their cell phone.
  • 15 percent reported receiving a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone else they know on their cell phone.
  • 17 percent of youth who pay all the costs associated with their cell phones send sexually suggestive images via text.
  • 8 percent of 17-year-olds who own a cell phone have sent a sexually suggestive image by text and 30% have received a sexually suggestive or nearly nude image on their phone.

So, while cell phones may provide parents with the ability to connect with their children more often, cell phones also come with potential risks – and create another opportunity for youth to harm others or to be harmed in a way that is different from what typically happens in a face-to-face setting. Research has shown that cyberbullying and “sexting” that occur in cyberspace, which is often unsupervised, can take a viral course (spreads to a large number of people quickly) and can happen at all hours of the day and night.

How parents should prepare for a child to have a phone

More important than asking at what age a parent should purchase a phone for their child, is the question of what parents should do to prepare themselves and their child to have a cell phone.

Some suggestions include:

  • Openly communicate with your child about the risks of using a cell phone.
  • Set clear rules about what’s appropriate cell phone behavior (create a family cell phone contract).
  • Make sure your child knows that it’s important for him/her to tell you about any problems or situations that happen to them on the cell phone. While law enforcement practices vary by jurisdiction, youth can be prosecuted for distribution of child pornography if they send nude images to others.

Editor’s note: Read this EdNews Parent post about how to determine whether your child is old enough to have a cell phone with texting capabilities.