Playing the Cell Game

Tread carefully when mixing teens and cell phones.

Everyone's got one," your teen-ager tells you. "If you get me a cell phone, I'll only use it to call you -- and for emergencies," she persists.

Right! Your teen doesn't care at all about the mobile phone as status symbol or its hip ring tones, cool games, Web access and camera capabilities.

Welcome to the cell game. And it can be tricky for parents, who must consider issues concerning cost, responsibility, usage and safety.

California, for example, has become the first state to outlaw teens from using cell phones in cars during their first year of driving. Camera phones are being outlawed in locker rooms. And some schools are prohibiting cell-phone use on their campuses.

"We have seen negative effects of cell phones," says Dr. Ellen Rome, head of the section of adolescent medicine at The Children's Hospital at The Cleveland Clinic. "Kid gets a cell phone, the grades go down."

So factor your child's age into any decision. For teen-age drivers, a cell phone might be a good idea for emergencies. But it could be wiser to arm younger kids with quarters or a phone card for a pay phone.

If you do decide to get your teen a cell phone, consider setting these ground rules:

Don't allow anyone to borrow your teen's cell phone. "Kids forget that almost all cell phones come with caller ID," says Dr. Lolita McDavid, medical director of child advocacy and protection at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital. So if you call a wrong number or let someone make a call to an unspecified number, those people can call you back. "What adolescent girls don't understand is [they] have to be very careful with random phone calls from men who they don't know," McDavid adds.

Don't give out the phone number freely. "It's like your home number or your address or anything else," says McDavid. "It's personal information that you have to be careful who you share it with."

Make sure your teen is mature enough to handle the responsibility. "Cell phones get stolen a lot, and there's a whole underground business in stolen cell phones and reprogramming them," McDavid notes. "So teens have to understand that they have to keep up with it, like keeping up with their purse or anything else."

Draw up a contract with your child specifying his or her contribution to the phone. Even if your teen doesn't pay for the phone, you should outline his "payment" for the privilege of having a phone, whether it's chores around the house or getting good grades. "It's worthwhile teaching them delayed gratification," says Rome. "If they work hard, they get the reward."

Discuss punishment up front and add that to the contract. Rome suggests that parents ask teens what they see as a fit punishment because "they sometimes come up with harsher strategies than the parent might have thought of." McDavid has no hesitation about making a teen pay the consequences for losing a cell phone, lending it out, going over the minute limit or not holding up their end of the "payment" agreement. "Kids have to grow up knowing there are consequences," she explains.

Don't get fancy. Teens don't need anything beyond a bare-bones phone with a local calling area to use in an emergency, such as a flat tire or waiting at a bus stop at night. Camera phones might be fun, but they aren't practical and are more likely to be stolen. McDavid suggests choosing a phone with a plan in which you pay for a certain amount of local minutes up front. That gives parents more control over how much time their teen spends on the phone.

Never answer or make a call while driving. "You have to think of the phone as another passenger in the car," warns McDavid. "And they're more likely to have an accident if there are other people in the car with them than when they're by themselves." A 2003 study by Ford found that adults dialing a handheld cell phone missed about 14 percent of simulated driver distraction, but teen-agers missed 54 percent. And don't let your teen talk you into a headset. A University of Utah study the same year found that conversations on hands-free phones were just as distracting as those on handheld phones. In fact, driving performance was more impaired when drivers were talking on either type of cell phone than when they were legally intoxicated.

Teach your teen phone etiquette • and take a lesson yourself. We've all been somewhere when a cell phone rings inappropriately or a person talks too loudly about personal issues. Make it clear to your teen that part of his or her responsibility in handling a cell phone is to use it politely. And, adds Rome, take note of an issue our society is running into with the rampant use of technology. "The risk of too much e-mail and cell phones is that you have kids who aren't so good at talking to each other face-to-face," she notes.

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