Our family had a problem that social cues couldn’t solve. According to my son, EVERYONE in his fourth-grade class already had a cellphone. I’m not clear on how he came by this data; I assume he prepared a paper survey, cleared it by Manz Elementary’s Research Ethics Board, conducted the study, then prepared a statistical analysis of the results. Eager to assess the reliability of his findings, my wife conducted a similar survey, this time of parents of fourth graders, following the same rigorous standards (I’m guessing) that my son did. Her surprising results: NO ONE in fourth grade had a cellphone.
My son’s range just expanded – he can bike to the pool and friends’ houses, and being able to get ahold of him for changes of plans or emergencies is appealing. Plus, we don’t have a landline, which means his 10-year-old friends text me on my cellphone, which is super weird.
Since the answer clearly wouldn’t be found in the social sciences, we had to look elsewhere: math. A well-designed equation would certainly yield the right age for a child’s first cellphone. All we had to do was factor in the right variables, and the unarguable answer would reveal itself.
I took calculus in high school. This would be a piece of cake.
The Family Necessity Value. The biggest factor affecting this calculation has to be the needs of a family living in the late 20-teens. My son’s range just expanded – he can bike to the pool and friends’ houses, and being able to get ahold of him for changes of plans or emergencies is appealing. Plus, we don’t have a landline, which means his 10-year-old friends text me on my cellphone, which is super weird. Accidentally texting something meant for one’s wife (whatever it’s rated) to a friend or relative is funny and embarrassing. Accidentally texting such a message to my kid’s classmates? I would have to move to Antarctica.
The Penchant for Abuse Factor. While we all agreed when we took our offspring home from the hospital that they would NEVER LOOK AT AN ELECTRONIC SCREEN EVER, a few of us have failed to live up to that ideal. My son has a Kindle and an Xbox, both of which he uses responsibly. Not from a time perspective, of course. Without intervention the skin of his hands would start to grow around the Kindle until it became a part of his body, which would be great for looking up fun facts on Wikipedia, but terrible for eating or, you know … cleaning oneself. But he respects the websites he’s allowed to visit and the YouTube content he’s allowed to view. I trust him online.
The “I Turned Out Fine” Constant. I didn’t have a cellphone back in the early ’90s, but I certainly spent enough time watching Zack Morris use his on Saved by the Bell. And the insane number of hours playing Zelda on my Super Nintendo, and X-Wing on the computer, and Super Street Fighter on Ian’s Super Nintendo, and my nightly episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And then I saved up to buy a Game Boy. I didn’t have an electronic device to carry in my pocket all the time, but I didn’t need one. I spent at least as much looking on screens as my kid does. And let’s face it: I turned out amazing.
The Joy of New Electronics Number. Getting your child a cellphone will make them very, very happy, and what’s more precious than joy on the face of child? Nothing. Nothing is more precious.
The Does-It-Really-Matter? Variant. Plenty of parents have pledged to follow all sorts of different trends when it comes to the first cellphone. “Wait ‘til eight” is a popular one, as if some hormonally-produced texting aptitude accompanies all the body hair. This can escalate into a bit of parenting one-upsmanship, too. “My kid won’t get a cellphone until she graduates high school.” “Oh yeah? Well my child isn’t allowed to have one until I’m dead, and even then he’ll have to pry it from my cold, lifeless hands at the open casket visitation.” But it’s all pretty arbitrary. Whenever kids gets a cellphone, they must be taught to use social media responsibly, the etiquette of calling and texting, and how to exercise self-control when using the device. And if they fail, the parent needs to step in to help. This is true for fifth graders as much as for 10th graders or 30-year-olds.
The equation also contains other concerns, like the Family Finance Variable, the Lost or Broken Replacement Intention, and The I-Never-Want-My-Kid-to-Grow-Up Factor, all of which is multiplied by the What My Parent Friends Will Think of Me Integer. I took everything into account, ran the equation, and the answer was clear: fifth grade. My son got his first cellphone (a hand-me-down) a little early, a few days before fourth grade ended. I’m confident in the decision, because whatever anyone else thinks or does doesn’t matter. I did the math.
Eric Rasmussen is a teacher, writer, father of two, and Eau Claire native. He blogs at theotherericrasmussen.com.