The Ring of Truth
October 14, 2004
By Jasmine Miller, Today's Parent, November 2004 edition
By arming our teens with cell phones, are we making them safer - or just zapping their independence?
Technology is slow to take hold in my house. To wit: My VCR is older than my teenage son; our TV is a bulky-screen model with brown side-panelling, cutting edge circa 1980; I buy disposable cameras because I don't own a digital one. My problem with technology stems from laziness, fear and other character flaws. I keep the VCR and TV because they work and I'm cheap. Having digital images of family events and other embarrassing moments would require reading a manual and I'd rather not. But my objection to mobile technology, specifically cellphones, has always run deeper.
There was no way I was going to buy one, I told my incredulous friends a few years ago. They'd see me with a camcorder glued to my face before they'd see a phone glued to my ear. It wasn't just the expense and the offensive ringing I was avoiding. I didn't want to become one of those people rifling through their vibrating bags to clutch the tiny gadgets, and then hold private conversations in public places. And while everyone thought I was crazy ("You can also turn the ringer off you know, Jazz"), there was a certain rogue cachet to being without a cellphone towards the end of the millennium. I was bucking convention. I defined counterculture. I was no slave to slick marketing ploys.
Nothing like a kid to tarnish a woman's rebel image.
I caved shortly after the turn of the century. My then 11-year-old son announced he'd outgrown after-school care and refused to go back. That meant he was making his way home solo and staying alone for a couple hours before I got back from work. The cellphone let me check in as I was racing from the subway to our street, and forced him to be responsible for checking in with me. We need it, I said to myself as I signed on the dotted line, divulged my credit card number and committed to a steep expense for months to come. But soon Calvin wasn't coming straight home after school. Instead he was making his way to the tutor and taking the streetcar home from team games or just hanging out. He couldn't check in without a phone of his own, I reasoned.
I still don't understand how an MP3 player works and sometimes pop my favourite cassettes into a genuine tape deck, but every night there are two tiny phones charging in my kitchen (and they each take better pictures than the disposable cameras I hoard).
I convinced myself that I had traded my counterculture rep for Calvin's safety. As long as we could talk whenever we wanted, there was no accident we couldn't avoid, no dilemma we couldn't reason our way out of. And, according to David Baxter, father of three and a psychologist with the Adlerian Centre in Ottawa, a cellphone does offer another level of safety. That's why he bought one for his oldest son when he was a teenager. "It wasn't so much about me calling him, but that he could call me without a quarter. And there were a few times when he was stranded and called to get a lift home," says Baxter.
Nice to have a shrink tell me I'm not crazy. Still we've had them for three years now and there's this nagging voice in my head saying maybe it's time to let go, maybe the cellphone and the constant communication it offers is my misguided attempt to prolong a phase of Calvin's childhood that is over. I suspect that the pocket-sized devices are my training wheels, a steadying force as we navigate the rocky road to Calvin's independence. And I can't shake the feeling that, like many children, I may not have realized I'm ready to ride without them.
Cellphones as safety - or a crutch?
If parents are buying cellphones for safety, it may be because there are horrific news stories to feed our fear: Remember the teenager from Clifton, NJ, who, in the summer of 2003, thwarted an abduction attempt? Using a swanky cellphone, the boy snapped a picture of his attacker, which was eventually used as evidence leading to the man's arrest. Forget the fact that random stranger attacks are rare; the truth is most of the danger I worry about can't be avoided with a quick call home. The cellphone doesn't bridge the physical distance between Calvin and me, if he were swarmed in the park on his way home from a game, there's not much I could do from our living room.
Like me, Karen Hill was reluctant to buy a cellphone for her 14-year-old daughter, Malaika, when the Toronto middle-school student started clamouring for one. For Malaika it was street cred: All the kids had one. But Hill didn't see a need for it. "Finally I gave in anyway," says Hill, who doesn't have a cellphone herself. Now she relies on her daughter's phone as much as Malaika does. "I've become used to her checking in with me and being able to find her all the time," says Hill. "And I don't know how often she would do that if she had to get to a pay phone." Malaika has had the phone for two years now and besides using it to check in from the mall, she also uses it when she's coming home at night from a babysitting job. "It's a 10-minute walk home and sometimes she just likes to have someone to talk to if it's dark," says Hill. "She wants that support, so she can just hear my voice and feel OK."
For most families, though, cellphones are about convenience. We make plans, arrange pick up and drop off times. There's nothing wrong with convenience. But what if the convenience of the cellphone isn't benign? What if checking in with me and answering my frequent and impromptu calls are undermining Calvin's self-reliance, confidence or problem solving, traits he needs to become fully independent?
According to Diane Wolf, a corporate trainer and parenting expert in Peterborough, Ont., that's a possibility. "Cellphones can make accessing parents too convenient, and kids rely on it as a crutch," this mother of three told me from her home office. "So for any problem whatsoever they say, "I'll phone home and my parents will deal with it." That's why a lot of calls are of the "can so-and-so come for dinner?" variety. Or a kid will call from a store and say, "I have a blue blouse and red one. Which one should I buy?" says Wolf. "Checking in too often can prevent them from deciding "would this be a wise thing to do?"
Wolf calls that line of self-questioning "exercising their choice muscles," something that's key to maturing. "And I like to have kids practise when the consequences are not life or death," she says. "If he's in a store trying to decide how to spend his money, I don't want him to call home and ask me. Go ahead and get it. If it turns out to be a bad choice, it will be a great learning experience."
Too much of a good thing
I can and do tolerate mind-numbing cellphone conversations with my teenager. And I'm not alone. Marcia MacQuarrie, Today's Parent contributing toy editor, lives in Ottawa and has five kids (that's not a typo). Only three have their own cellphones. "My youngest son calls me most often, and he'll call to tell me something like "Brillo the cat just came to visit, he's in the backyard right now, Mom!" says MacQuarrie. "I like that he feels a link to me even when I'm still out doing errands, but sometimes I think he could wait till I get home to share some of his less earth-shattering news."
At an out-of-town meeting a few years ago, MacQuarrie's cellphone rang. It was her son. He needed to know where the cereal was. "At that point I told him not to call long-distance again unless it was an emergency."
But in the end, bursts of the banal are inoffensive and a small price to pay for peace of mind, no? Not for another parent with Today's Parent ties, former managing editor Denny Manchee. "The culture of my family...some would consider it Luddite," says the Toronto mother of 13-year-old Joseph and Charlotte, 15. "There's definitely an anti-gadget ethos in this house." Her family doesn't have cable and no one has a cellphone either. "That's a philosophical choice," says Manchee. "I feel profoundly violated by cellphone users' invasion of my privacy."
But that doesn't mean Manchee keeps less close tabs on her kids than I do on mine. "I do ask them to phone in, regularly, when they are out," she says. "They always leave the house with quarters and there hasn't been a time when I didn't know where they were."
That's of course why I keep the cellphone, so I know where my kid is. But now that he's 14, maybe that's just stifling. By putting these tiny tracking devices in their knapsacks, we force our kids to join the ranks of the annoying (those people who stop dead in their tracks when they hear a ringing phone and talk anywhere, anytime). Maybe we also take more risks because we have cellphones. It's an easy trap to fall into.
Parents take calculated risks all the time, weighing our kids' proven developmental abilities against their drive for new freedom and responsibilities. Last month, Calvin asked me if he could go to a coffee shop at 8 p.m. on a Saturday just to hang with his friends. My instinct was a flat no. (No good can come from "hanging" after dark.) But I remembered that at Christmastime he wanted to go to the movies, not a matinee, with the same group of kids and not invite a chaperone. I said yes then, it worked out fine, and now it"s a regular occurrence. Because of that, I decide to take a gamble: Yes, you can go drink lattes with your buddies, Calvin. But they better be decaf, you better be home by 10:30, and you have to bring your phone.
"The question parents have to ask themselves is 'would I let my child attend this event or have this freedom without the cellphone'" says Wolf. If the answer is a clear no, then it shouldn't happen with the cellphone "because a cellphone is a convenience, not a lifeline."
A police perspective
I decided to put the question to the police: Does a cellphone make my son safer? I spoke to Rob Radbourn of the Community Programs Crime Prevention Unit. "The most important part of streetproofing is communication," he told me. "Obviously cellphones help with that, but streetproofing is a continuum too. It starts at four or five years old and has to go on into the teen years." Having a cellphone isn't a replacement for that. "You need to talk to him about finding what we call "areas of natural deterrence": storefronts, houses where the porch light is on and other well-lit areas, as well as how to use 911."
But Radbourn works in downtown Toronto, which is where I live, so maybe this is an urban affliction, this parenting-by-cellphone phenomenon? David Baxter lives in Kemptville, a small community outside of Ottawa, and he thinks there may be something to that. "When my older sons were younger, when they weren't at home, we knew where they were and who they were with because we brought them there," he says. "In the city that's different because kids start taking buses and so on at an earlier age."
So unless I plan to be home by the phone every time my kid is out, the whole family needs to be wired. "We all want that feeling that we can hear our kids' voices whenever we choose, but we can't because they can always turn the ringer off," points out Wolf.
Maybe that's why I find myself saying, "Why didn't you pick up the phone?" as often as I say, "Why don't you put your dishes in the sink?" Like an adult in a movie theatre, I'm sure there are times when Calvin doesn't want to be disturbed by vibrating pants and his nagging mom. But there's nothing like that sickening feeling when the cellphone rings and rings to spur on a parent's irrational fears. (He's in a ditch. This is it. Oh. My. God.)
MacQuarrie knows that feeling. She doesn't know if her 15-year-old son's phone was out of juice or if he'd simply turned it off, but she couldn't get through to him last month. "He never showed up after school, so at about 11:30 that evening, I started calling his friends' homes to locate him." Safe and sound, he just didn't hear the phone, and having it in his pocket didn't inspire him to initiate a check-in call home either. "Needless to say, he was very grounded," says MacQuarrie.
I empathize with her, but I'm not ready to give up our $60-a-month gadgets (and not just because I signed a three-year contract that would be too expensive to break now). Between the mundane calls we regularly make to each other ("So, are you still at the bus stop, Calvin, or did it come already?" and "Hey, Mom, I'm just around the corner. What's for dinner?") are the times I've been grateful for them. Take, for instance, the time he lost his wallet, and all his subway tickets, at school, but didn't realize it until he was on his way home from a regular tutoring session one freezing January night.
He backtracked to the tutor and, standing outside the locked office, my 12-year-old was stranded; at 7 p.m. it was pitch dark and there was almost no one else around. He called me. His toes would have fallen off by the time I got there to meet him, so we practised on the phone together: "Hello. I would like a taxi to 100 Queen Street West, please. Approximately how long will that be? Thank you." I recited the phone number, he hung up with me, ordered his first taxi with our rehearsed script and called me back. I distracted him from the cold by rattling on about the cats and what I was making for dinner until the taxi came. We kept talking during his 20-minute ride home. (The reception was so clear, I heard the cabbie swearing at other drivers.) Calvin regularly calls cabs now, but that conversation alone was worth more than $60.
No one's calling me crazy for that. "There's a place for a cellphone," says Wolf, "but like any other form of technology it can be abused and misused." She means abused by kids, of course, kids who may not be able to resist using a $20 card for a gossip session with a girlfriend, or kids who text message test answers to their classmates.
But I wonder if it's not me who's misusing this technology, by pretending it's something it isn't, imagining it makes Calvin safer, when all it really does is make our lives easier.