The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 8, 2005


Cell phone: Nuisance or rite of passage?

Cell phones — you can love them or hate them, but they are here to stay. They are now as common as hats, jackets, and keys. They are taken everywhere and used by everyone. They are a helpful tool and an annoying distraction. Cell phones ring in movie theatres, churches, hospitals and public restrooms and even at Ferns.
CCHS ninth-grader Maya Smith chats on her phone. (Photo by Cynthia Sorn)

But they are not just for grownups anymore. As soon as they hit the market, teens quickly saw the benefits of having instant communication with their friends. More and more teens and 'tweens (kids between ages 10 and 13) are carrying phones to school and everywhere else: sports events, shopping and parties.

In fact, based on an informal e-mail survey and chat around the town, it appears the average age for Carlisle students to obtain a cell phone is 14, or as a freshman in high school. Cecile Sandwen said her ninth grader has one. "We found they are almost a requirement there, and when she didn't have one, people were surprised. There are no convenient pay phones and extra help/makeup/work tends to get scheduled at the last minute."

CCHS ninth-grader Maya Smith, visiting Carlisle School and chatting on her phone on the school plaza, says she uses her cell phone to keep in touch with her parents, who both work.

CCHS policy

The Concord-Carlisle High School policy states cell phones must be kept turned off during the school day and can only be used if the student is given teacher permission. Using them at inappropriate times may cause the phone to be "removed from a student's possession for the remainder of the day," according to the school handbook. Additional penalties could include detention or suspension from school.

Recently a group of Carlisle mothers was asked at what age they thought kids should get cell phones. Most agreed high school was a good age. They explained their students were involved in many after-school activities, and schedules constantly are changing. "I avoid sitting and waiting for my daughter," explained one parent. "She calls me when she is ready to be picked up." When asked if many kids are using the phones at school; a mother answered that kids set the phones on "vibrate" and leave them in their backpacks. "The students know when a phone is ringing," she said; "the backpacks start moving by themselves."

Phones for middle school students?

Should children younger than fourteen get cell phones? Joan Goodman, who has a seventh grader and a college student, responded, "I see no need for cell phones before high school. My daughter is only a mile from home every day and I work at home. Maybe I'd feel different if I traveled a lot for work."

Other parents, however, do see the need for their children to have cell phones at an earlier age. Susan Evans explained, "My children both have cell phones. Both got their cell phones when they entered middle school. They both were and are involved in after-school sports. When the teams travel to other schools to compete and I'm unable to attend, they call me to let me know what time to pick them up." In fact, her older child, who attended a private school in Lincoln, had a cell phone in sixth grade, much earlier than most other students. "I didn't think it was decadent back then but many of my Carlisle friends did. I felt it was a necessity."

Carlisle School seventh grader Nick Opolski pulled out his cell phone from his pocket one Thursday afternoon and proudly displayed it. What cell phone features are important to have, he was asked? "Flip phone, got to buy a flip phone," he responded. Nick's older sister, eighth grader Amanda, said she uses hers to call her mom for pickups after sports. "Some eighth graders are getting them," she said. "I think most high school students have them."

Most of the time, according to the same group of Carlisle mothers, cell phones are not used for emergency calls. "It's funny," one mother said, "the kids say goodbye to each other at school, and five minutes later they are talking on their cell phones. Most of the conversations are about what happened that day at school." But that use doesn't seem to over-concern Carlisle parents. "We used to do that when we were young," remarked another mother. "But we used regular phones."

Text messaging

There have been numerous horror stories in the news regarding the use of text messaging. Text messaging allows users to type in short phrases and send them to another cell phone. Each message can cost around ten cents, depending on the user's service plan. The messages, which can be sent fast and discreetly, have resulted in phone bills in the hundreds of dollars. Surprisingly, very few Carlisle parents reported any problems with text messaging. One parent said the first month's bill was higher than expected. "We had a sit-down discussion," the parent said, and that took care of the over charges.

Carlisle School seventh-grader Nick Opolski shows off his cell phone. (Photo by Cynthia Sorn)

Carlisle School policy

The policy at Carlisle School is the same as at CCHS, according to Carlisle School Superintendent Marie Doyle, although it is not yet written in the student handbook. "Having a cell phone at school is a privilege," she said, "and students need teacher permission to use it." Cell phones are not allowed at lunch hour, recess, or instructional time, Doyle explained. She said phones are a good way for students to arrange transportation and stay in contact with their parents. "It's a comfort factor. Parents know where the kids are, and kids can reach their parents." She says there have been very few problems with cell phones at the school. "Kids understand it's only for emergency."

Since students are not allowed to use the phones during the school day, no text messaging should occur during classes. Some Carlisle students reported that other students send messages to each other during the short time between classes when they are getting books from their lockers. But no students admitted doing it themselves.

Family or "share" phone

After-school activities are the prime reason parents gave for having their middle school children carry cell phones. Some parents provide a "family" phone and give the phone to their child for special occasions. One parent said she lends her cell phone to her 13-year-old when they are on family excursions. Their son can go off and explore by himself, and they can call him on her husband's cell phone.

The disadvantage of sharing a phone is the difficulty of keeping track of who is incurring the charges. "Recently, when I changed my service and got a new phone, we bought into a "Family Plan" so now my two kids (ages 10 and 14) have a phone to share," said Amy Fennick. "Sometimes, if they are planning to stay after school, they'll take the phone to school so they can call me to coordinate a pickup plan. They keep the phone turned off until after school hours. So far, they have been very responsible and I let them manage their use of the phone."

Most parents said they felt their children were able to handle phone usage without having limits installed and were not concerned about "managing" their children's cell-phone access. Some phones can be programmed to allow calling or receiving only specified phone numbers, giving the parents more control.

Socialization has been affected by cell phones, according to many parents. Kids can pull out a phone any time outside of school, and use it while they are with friends, shopping, or even hiking. Is it a problem? Some parents have asked their kids to turn off the phones when the family is together. "I would not expect that the phone be used socially or during school hours and, at the same time, I would hope that they are responsible enough to stay within their minutes," said one parent. Another wondered if using the phones would distract kids from enjoying the world around them.

"The one negative of the cell-phone era I've observed is that kids don't plan anymore," said Sandwen. "Everything is done very last minute. I guess I'm old- fashioned, but I like to know what I'm committed to and where everyone will be ahead of time. And I resist having family plans disrupted. Of course my philosophy is pretty unpopular with my kids."

Cell phones in grade school?

When it comes to cell phones, how young is too young? At least one parent said her ten-year-old has the use of a family phone, but she takes it specifically when she is skiing. "It felt like a nice safety net and convenience for her to have that as a lifeline in case anything ever came up on the slopes, or simply to find each other more easily at pickup time." Some parents mentioned a cell phone would be handy on family trips, such as at Disney World, similar to how walkie-talkies are used.

Fifth graders Sarah Brantley and Melanie MacMullan, discussing cell phones in the Carlisle School parking lot, said they were ready to have one of their own. "I want one now," said Brantley. MacMullan agreed. "It's cool to text message people." But fifth grader Grete Langrind disagreed. "I think it's pointless for fifth graders to have one," she said. "They aren't useful; they are just for calling people. A digital camera would be useful." They all agreed, however, they would need cell phones when they went to parties.

Do they know any fifth graders that have one? Maybe only six, they said.

"Most have phones for looking cool," Langrind pointed out. When do kids use their cell phones? "Not in class," responded Langrind. "Just after school," said MacMullan. They thought kids were text messaging in the cafeteria and at recess. But not in class, they all agreed.

Dale Ryder, parent of a fifth grader, says her family has used her son's desire for a cell phone as a topic for a family discussion. "Peter would like to have a cell phone now, mostly because "everyone else has one," she explained. "It has opened up good discussions in our family not only about the reasons for wanting one now but also discussions about peer pressure and about how our family does not always do what other families do."

Health concerns

If children as young as ten are using cell phones, should we be concerned for their health? According to the FDA, there is no hard scientific evidence that children or adults will be affected adversely by the radio frequency (RF) waves from cell phones. "With regards to the safety and use of cell phones by children, the scientific evidence does not show a danger to users of wireless communication devices including children," the FDA web site explains. However, parents who are concerned can encourage their children to use headphones.

"I don't spend much time thinking about the health implications of using a cell phone (maybe I should think about this more!)," said Fennick, "but I am very concerned about people being distracted by their phones when driving. It's scary to see someone heading into a busy rotary while chatting on a phone or backing up an SUV in a parking lot, one-handed and blabbing away. I try to point out drivers like this to my kids so they can see how dangerous it is. I'm hoping they'll remember when they start driving."

"I am amazed when I see someone pulling onto a busy street holding their cell phone to one ear as they skillfully or not so skillfully try to enter traffic between cars," another parent said. "I understand that health concerns have been noted in the press in the past and have noticed that if I am on the phone for a long period of time without the earpiece, that the phone actually gets hot."

One parent said she has to remember to model good cell-phone behavior while driving, because her teenager is beginning to drive. "No more holding the phone and driving," she said.

Phones for need, not peer pressure

Almost all Carlisle parents contacted felt children were ready for cell phones by high school, and that allowing a child to own a cell phone should be a family decision, not a reaction to peer pressure. There were few parents on the fence; either they felt strongly that cell phones were unnecessary for their child, or were pleased that phones gave them relief in their busy schedules, and independence and safety to their kids. Perhaps getting cell phones is similar to having a child learn to drive — parents dread it but are relieved when kids can drive themselves.

Are children younger than fourth graders using cell phones? "Happily, our son is only in third grade and the subject of cell phones hasn't even come up," responded Jim Zimmerman. "Come back to me for a quote in a couple of years!"

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito