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Do Cell Phones Really Make Kids Safer?

Photograph by Twenty20

My neighbor's 10-year-old son is about to start walking to middle school, so she's buying him a cell phone. "I don't really want to," she lamented, "But I have to, don't I?" Despite the fact that we live in a safe and friendly neighborhood, and the walk is a mere five blocks, she feels compelled to arm him with a mobile phone "just in case."

I understand this mom's desire to protect her son, but when it comes to walking home from school, I think a phone could be more of a hindrance than a help. I immediately pictured her video game-loving boy looking downwards, hunched over his screen, when he should be scanning the road for cars running stop signs or rocks in his path. And in a worst case scenario—a predator—how exactly will the phone help, unless maybe the kid uses it as a projectile weapon? "Hold on, dirty pervert, I need to call my mom."

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Personally, I'd rather teach my kid street smarts, reinforcing that awareness of one's surroundings is the key to staying safe. I'll do as many practice runs with my daughter as necessary, making sure she knows the route, the safest places to cross and which dogs to avoid. I might even trail behind her for a few days. But I'm not planning to throw a phone into the mix—not when they come with so much extra baggage that has nothing to do with safety.

They say, "It's a different world out there today." But is it really?

And at the risk of sounding like your grandpa who walked 12 miles in the snow uphill both ways, my bus stop was three quarters of a mile from my house and I walked it twice a day without incident. But never mind the school bus—when my parents split, my father moved from our Connecticut suburb into Manhattan. So when I was 13, my 10-year-old brother and I would take the Metro North train into Grand Central Station, grab a city bus uptown and walk to my Dad's apartment by ourselves. I credit these early experiences with some of my best qualities: self reliance, independence and a love of travel.

Think back to your childhood. Surely, at some point, you had to walk somewhere without your parents and without a phone. And it was kind of awesome. I think it's a mistake to coddle our perfectly capable kids by making parents accessible 24/7. It's like saying, "I don't think you can handle this without me."

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Yet when it comes to my parenting philosophy, I suspect I am in the minority here. Several of my mom friends not only gave their school-aged kids phones, they also installed tracking software so they can monitor their every move. They say, "It's a different world out there today." But is it really? There have always been dangers, and there always will be. What's different now is the technology available.

Personally, I'd rather my kid was looking around than down at her damn phone.

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