My son’s tenth birthday is in a few weeks, and he says he wants a cell phone. When I asked him why, he told me it was to play games and connect to the Internet to retrieve sports scores.

His reasons for wanting a phone are not uncommon. A 2010 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 66% of youth ages 8–18 have a cell phone. The study also found that the majority of these kids use their cell phones as mobile media devices.

So, the upshot is that while most kids have cell phones, few of them actually use them primarily to talk. This probably does not surprise most parents. When I ask my own teen daughters if they “spoke” to someone, and they say “yes,” they usually mean that they either texted or interacted with them via Facebook. “There is a huge change in how this generation literally connects and relates to one another,” says Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and author of the book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (Harper, August 2013).

The Old Home-Phone Advantage
Years ago, families had one landline phone that everyone shared. This allowed parents to be communication gatekeepers in the home. Answering the phone allowed parents to find out who was calling and provided a window into their child’s social life.

But today’s parents may have no idea who their child is “speaking” with. Personal cell phones provide easy access to the Internet and social media, granting children the ability to communicate with a broader number of people. A kid may be interacting online with someone that they would never speak to in person or even someone they have never met at all.

Home phone lines also fostered basic communication and etiquette skills. When making a call, kids had to acknowledge the person answering the phone, identify themselves, and state their business in calling. It was a simple exchange, but it taught a valuable lesson. When I suggest to my own children that they call a friend’s home to make plans, they look at me as if I’m crazy. Steiner-Adair says, “Kids will say ‘it’s so old-fashioned to call, no one does that anymore,’ and it is true. But they still need to know how to do it.”

Online Life Replacing Real Life
Despite being very “connected,” in many ways today’s youth are what experts would call disconnected. “Social media has created a cultural self-objectification,” says Steiner-Adair. Kids may become more concerned with how they are portrayed online than who they really are. The significance of an event (going to a party, hanging out with friends) may be less important than how that event will be viewed later in Facebook photos.

According to Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, “Electronic communication means kids don’t see or hear the direct impact of what they are communicating.” When people talk in person or on the phone, there is a tone element that is missing in an online exchange. Tone conveys to the listener if the speaker is upset or joking, etc. During an online exchange, the recipient may not understand the intent behind the sender’s message, and feelings can get hurt.

In addition, the fast-paced nature of online communication creates “a highly reactive environment,” Steiner-Adair says. “Interactions are very immediate—things like ‘OMG! I’m deleting you!’—Kids push ‘send’ before they have a chance to think.” Also, since the online culture is different, kids may represent different values than they have in person. “Online kids have more bravado. It can be kind of cool to be edgy or even cruel,” says Steiner-Adair. Parents need to help kids understand that online life is not a replacement for real life. Insist kids take breaks from their electronics and spend time with family and friends.

What Can You Do?
Elias says, “Technology is only a set of tools. Ultimately, what matters is the character, sensitivity, and interpersonal and communication skills of the person using the technology.”

Technology is here to stay, so parents need to help kids incorporate it into their lives in a way that enhances it and keeps them safe.

Be a Role Model
Parents should power down when they get home from work. Don’t check emails during dinner or multitask when “watching” kids at sporting events, etc. And never text and drive; it is dangerous—and illegal.

Set Rules and Limits
Set up rules and limits regarding technology and enforce them. Teach your child to be respectful online and to think before tweeting, posting, or sending. Don’t allow kids to use electronic communication at family gatherings or when friends are over.

Keep Tabs On A Child’s Online Life
Parents may feel they are violating their child’s privacy if they look at their emails or Facebook presence. Steiner-Adair says, “Online communication is not a journal with private thoughts hidden under a child’s bed. It is out there for the world to see, and therefore it is not private. Parents should let their kids know they will be keeping tabs on them online.”

Talk to Them
It is okay to text or email with your kids, but don’t allow it to replace the art of conversation. Spend car rides and family dinners talking and listening.

Embrace Teachable Moments
Encourage children to handwrite thank-you notes and to make phone calls.


The Right Age for Technology?

The appropriate age for a cell phone varies from child to child. The need may be earlier for a child with two working parents. Any child who has a cell phone needs to understand that it is a responsibility (keeping it charged, not losing it, making sure it is turned off in class). There is no need to buy a young child a fancy cell phone; start with a basic model.

  • To set up an email account, a child needs to be at least 13 years old. For a child younger than 13, a parent can set up an email for her through websites such as and that ensure a safe online environment.
  • To sign up for a Facebook page or a Twitter account, a person needs to be at least 13 years old. This guideline is set up for a reason, and Steiner-Adair strongly cautions parents not to let their kids have one before they are legally old enough.

Randi Mazzella, a mother of three, is a freelance writer from Short Hills.