SARANAC LAKE - Macey Fischer was in seventh grade when she first asked her parents for a cell phone. She said it took a lot of pushing and prodding before her mom finally gave in.
"I definitely wanted a phone, and my mom was sort of against it at first," said Fischer, who's now a freshman at Saranac Lake High School. "But then I kind of begged her and begged her, and I ended up getting it as a birthday present."
That kind of conversation - or in some cases, that kind of battle - is one families here in the Tri-Lakes and across the country are engaged in, often on a daily basis. Some parents are under constant siege from their kids, who see their peers with cell phones and desparately want one of their own, but the parents resist. There are also plenty of parents who willingly have given their kids cell phones, they say, for the sake of safety and convenience.
Saranac Lake High School senior Lizzie Finlayson sends a text message using her cell phone outside the high school on Wednesday.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
So, what should mom and dad do? How early is too early to buy your kid a cell phone? The Enterprise asked a group of local parents, and their kids, how they've approached this issue, and got some very different answers. Local educators also chimed in with advice for parents struggling with when, or if, to give their child a cell phone.
By the numbers
75% of U.S. kids ages 12 to 17 have a cell phone, an increase from 45% in 2004.
43% of U.S. kids got their first cell phone at ages 12 or 13.
72% of teens - or 88% of teen cell phone users - are text-messagers, up from 51% in 2006.
54% of teens say they've received spam or other
26% of teens say they've been bullied or harassed through text messages and phone calls.
(Source: The Pew Internet and American Life Project 2010)
Macey Fischer's mom, Saranac Lake school board member Katie Fischer, said her daughter shared a phone with her father before she was given her own phone, largely because Macey was getting more involved in after-school activities and she wanted to be able to stay in contact with her, wherever she was.
"But I think she started asking due to the peer pressure in the fourth grade, definitely by the fifth grade and in sixth grade, because by then everybody has one," Katie said.
Macey admits that she wanted a phone not so much to stay in touch with her mom but so she could text message with her friends.
"Everyone would carry their phones around, text messaging, and I never had one," she said.
Now Macey says she can't imagine life without her iPhone. She sends between 70 and 100 texts a day, mostly to her friends, and uses it to go online and to do her homework. The only time she really uses the phone to make a call, she said, is to contact her parents.
Katie Fischer said she has implemented a strict, zero-tolerance policy when it comes to her daughter or her son (Dustin Fischer, a junior at the high school) using their cell phones inappropriately.
"If I see their phones and there's a curse word, the phone is gone," Katie said. "My kids are aware of the purpose of the cell phone and it's a privilege to have the phone, and if you can't toe the line using it for its purposes, you don't have one."
Now Fischer says she's getting pressure from her youngest child, sixth-grader Ryley, who wants a cell phone. At this point, Fischer is saying no.
"She's totally lobbying," Fischer said. "But I don't have any intention of getting her one. I just don't see the purpose before they start playing sports, going to games. I personally think cell phones get them in trouble. No good comes of it. Between taking pictures and texting inapprppriately, they're too young to make good choices at that age. The longer you put it off, I think, the better it is, and the easier it is."
Kareen Tyler says her daughters - Zoe, who's now a Saranac Lake High School senior, and Ava, a junior at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire - got cell phones when they were in sixth grade.
"I don't recall that they asked for one; I think it was probably our idea that they have one," Tyler said. "When we moved into the house we're in now, we chose only to have cell phones versus having a landline. When they got to sixth grade and their friends were calling, we got them their own phones."
Tyler said she didn't have any qualms about giving her kids cell phones at that age, other than worries that they could lose them. She was comfortable with it, she said, because her kids take after her and aren't big cell phone users.
"They just don't have the personalities where it's like an extension of them," Tyler said. "It is always with them, but they'd rather interact with the people they're with than sit and text."
Tyler said she's never had to take her girls' phones away as punishment, and there are no set rules at home for using their phones, other than not answering calls during dinner. She said she's always told her kids that using the phone is a privilege that comes with responsibility.
The benefit of her daughters having cell phones, Tyler said, has been the convenience of them being able to call home to check in or if they need a ride.
"I think it's as much as a convenience to us as it is to the kids," she said. "In the winter, Zoe will go to school, then after-school activities, then she teaches ski lessons, then she goes to ski practice. It's like, how would you ever keep track of where she is or what she's doing if you couldn't just call her on the phone?"
Somewhere at the other end of the spectrum are Paula and Paul Hameline, parents of three children in Saranac Lake schools: Eli, a sophomore at the high school, Louisa, a freshman, and Luke, a middle school sixth-grader. None of the Hameline kids have cell phones, although it's apparently a subject that comes up regularly.
"It's a discussion that's been going on for the last four years, at least, and we stand today where we stood four years ago," Paula said. "We have said that it's a luxury item, not a necessity item at this stage in life. It's the same with iPods and iPhones. We've said these are things that if you feel you need them, you need to earn them.
"We had a lot of communication about our reasoning for it. It wasn't just no because we said no. We actually talked about it, and it made sense to them. My daughter just kept saying, 'I really want one,' and for her I think it was more of a socially acceptable thing, like, 'All my friends have it.' But I said, 'You need to earn it.'"
The Hamelines' youngest son, Luke, said almost all his friends have cell phones, but he's not bothered too much by the fact that his parents aren't giving him one.
"I don't really need one because I don't really go a lot of places away from them," Luke said. "If I do, then I usually use the phones of the people I go with, either theirs or their parents'."
Paula said her biggest concern surrounds text messaging.
"I just feel that the amount of texting that goes on is frivolous, at least from child to child," she said. "When you're doing that constant texting conversation, you pass information that you might not pass if you were face to face. Face-to-face communication that I think is so integral to any relationship moving forward is going to suffer because of the extreme amount of interfacing through technology."
Asked about the convenience and safety arguments some parents make for giving their kids cell phones, Paula said that's "something we've been fed by the media and marketing by the cell phone companies."
"I don't think times have changed so much where kids are in more danger than we were. I think there's different kinds of dangers. But for my kids, I have all their friends' cell phone numbers, and most people that my children are friends with still have a landline."
If a parent of a child younger than sixth grade is going to buy their kid a cell phone, Petrova Elementary School Principal Josh Dann said they should learn all they can about the capabilities of the phone. A phone that can only be used for talking, not texting or the Internet, would be a better option for younger kids, Dann said. Setting parameters for the the use of the phone is also important.
"It all depends on the student," Dann said. "It's a trust thing. Sometimes I look at kids with cell phones, and I know they can be trusted with it. There's other times where I'm thinking, 'Boy, I hope they can make good choices and not get themselves in a situation."
"It's up to the individual parent and the child because of the situation," said Saranac Lake Middle School Principal Patricia Kenyon. "Our families have very different types of schedules, with people in different places, and there might be a need for a cell phone sooner than in other instances. But I do think you have to be careful with a cell phone, and parents have to be aware of who their kids are calling and those kinds of things."
"The most important message we can give kids is they need to use these tools appropriately," said High School Principal Bruce Van Weelden. "It has a very good, strong, positive purpose and function in our society, but it also has the power to be a very damaging thing. When people use technology inappropriately, parents should feel confident in saying, 'You can't have that. Let's figure out the old-fashioned way of communicating.'"