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To phone or not to phone?

     So yesterday we had a birthday in da house – my son became a big 11 year-old and the usual frenzied ripping of paper, gobbling of chocolate cake and general high jinks ensued.  It was a quiet day in many ways, being a school day it was difficult to plan anything too exciting.  His choice, strange but true, was to have a bath with all his clothes on……..sometimes I wonder if they gave me the right baby? Must check those hospital files one of these days.

In amongst all this celebratory activity, one gift that stood out as a raving parental/child success was the giving of a touchscreen mobile phone. While I was delighted he was so pleased with it – who wouldn’t want to see a great big beam on their child’s face? – it had caused some inner turmoil and marital “discussion” before its purchase, and even now I am wondering if it was really necessary….and/or was it too soon? It got me wondering what other parents think about the positives and negatives of mobiles for under-teens….what age is too young to phone?

Much has been written about the negatives surrounding mobile phone usage among the young. The debates range from concerns over peer pressure and potential bullying issues; to yet another excuse for us useless parents not to communicate with our children (lumped in along with buying them PCs, gaming stations and allowing them to use social networking sites); to those of a more alarming medical and psychological nature. Experts have said that children need to be “ready” to have a phone; in terms of their maturity to handle the responsibility of ownership of a fairly expensive item, the consequences financially and socially of using (and losing) it; and physically in terms of their childhood brain development and resistance to damage from radio frequency radiation. One study, carried out by lead author Leeka Kheifets and published in 2010 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, has gone so far as to suggest that:

 “Children exposed to cell phones in the womb and after birth had a higher risk of behavior problems by their seventh birthday….”

“…compared to children with no exposure to cell phones, those exposed before and after birth were 50 per cent more likely to display behavior problems…”

A The Times article from June 2009 discusses the potential market release of a phone especially developed for 4-12 year-olds, in candy pink or blue with simplified buttons! It all sounds like a recipe for disaster, rather like a science-fiction plot or at the very least a potential NHS timebomb similar to cigarette smoking or glue-sniffing epidemics.  On that subject, interestingly, according to research published by Alasdair and Jean Philips

“Britain’s official £3.1million long-term investigation (COSMOS) into the risk of cancer from mobiles specifically excludes young people.”

Fat lot of good that investigation is then! This is what I pay my taxes for – grrrr!

So on this evidence, what kind of parents would we be to expose our little one (and his sister before him) to such negative potential? Well, like all things, we have to weigh the evidence, discuss the options and the boundaries we will work within, and then go forward.

If I am honest, I suppose it was predominantly the peer pressure and bullying aspects that had me most worried; my assumption being that since my boy had only a few friends with mobile phones he would not be on the thing chatting for many hours a day and therefore would be medically and psychologically safe. That type of continuous phone activity is the reserve of my boss, to whom a cellphone (he is Texan originally, and therefore does not call it a mobile) is as vital as his right arm and/or oxygen. Don’t get me started on his behavioural problems.

The thought that my littlest could be wanting one just because “everyone else has one” was, to me, the lamest of reasons to succumb to a £50 minimum purchase plus on-going costs each month. Owing to a tendency to wear any normal shoes out approximately every 3 weeks, I remember having to wear crepe-soled nurses’ shoes to school as a teenager – in the 80’s – so don’t get me started on wanting to “fit in” and be like my peers. Such adversity makes a man of you, is what I say to that.

Phone bullying can, according to other interesting blog articles I have read on this subject, take the form of stealing the said phones from each other at sleepovers, playdates etc. and in extreme cases, holding the phone “hostage” until the child owner performs a task or forfeit which he or she is loathe to do. Now that is just not on.

What swayed me, in the end, was a niggling voice in the back of my head that said to me “You work full-time 60 miles away from home. Your son is imminently leaving the cosy world of primary school and heading to a much bigger secondary school environment where he has to take a bus to school, and from a pure safety point of view, you would like to be able to get hold of him and him be able to get hold of you.” Yes, true on all counts. The phone we have purchased also has a GPS locator on it. Nuff said.

The other major mover on the swingometer towards agreeing to this purchase was my son’s own poignant request. He is so undemanding a person – literally as easy-going as anyone could be – and he NEVER asks for anything outright (except a sandwich but that doesn’t count). I asked him for a birthday list weeks before the actual day, and he kept saying he really didn’t want/need anything. Finally, a week ago, he said if I was really going to push the point, then he would like a phone so he could text his friends. This from a child who, to my knowledge, does not even call his friends from our house phone! While I couldn’t, on that basis, justify it – I couldn’t in all honesty resist his direct request for something, perhaps for the first time ever.

So the phone is in situ – it has mine, his father’s and his sister’s numbers programmed in so far, plus one other friend. He texted me five times last night from upstairs in his bedroom, and once this morning from the end of my own bed. I’m not really seeing any behavioural or communication issues here…..gulp!

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