The Great Debate: Do Kids Really Need Their Own Cell Phone?

Last week I shared the story about my $1055 cell phone bill, courtesy of my teenage son. The article seemed to, um, resonate with a lot readers, not only here but at MSN where it was also featured as a guest post, and on Digg, where at last count it had received 111 votes.

Many of the comments bagged on my parenting skills. Some just wrote in to voice their displeasure with me, like this one over at MSN:

“This article is a FRAUD! Hey Penzo, I’ll NEVER read anything you write again!”SLSHUSKER

I found many of the comments over at Digg to be particularly amusing. Here is just a small sample:

“I say he deserves to pay the bill if he’s that clueless about texting. (Or just tell the kid now he can’t go to college.)”Seattlegirluw

“A sensationalist worthless article with a headline that was outright misleading.”mysql101

“Stopped reading after the awful AT&T joke.” – KSOVII

“The author is an attention whore, that’s all.” – strfx

“What kind of f***ing mental defective is writing this article?” – RizzosBack

“Seriously, what the f*** is ‘PTL’? I’ve never heard that in my entire life.”Dabek

“Why do you think I would listen to anything you have to say regarding technology you’ve never f***ing used? One of the worst submissions I’ve seen on Digg.” – bigsheldy

“I’m still confused whether the author is male or lesbian. If he is a male, why does he write like a chick?”HailfireX

I’m still trying to figure all that out myself, HailfireX.

Meanwhile, the comments at the MSN message board attempted to focus a bit more on the debate between whether or not cell phones were appropriate for kids:

“Why does a 12 and/or 13 year old child (yes, they’re still CHILDREN at that age) need a cell phone? Even if they’re paying – or supposed to be paying – for use of the phone, I still fail to see why a middle schooler needs a cell phone.”Can we take a closer look please

“CHILDREN don’t NEED cell phones! Especially that young. If they HAVE to have one…get one that doesn’t perform all the tricks!!!”k64to know

“Can’t say a cell phone for a 12 year old would qualify for ‘need’. However, most of us live in a world where both parents work, and the children are forced to move from school to some day care, or go home alone. For that reason alone I would give a child a cell phone at any age.” – Dawn K.

“You’re an idiot to give a 12 year old a cell phone. What’s next, credit cards at 14?”jjsjjsva

“Dummy is not the word I would use to describe this parent. As parents we need to watch over our children, and I am sorry, a 12 or 13 year old does not need a phone.” – foreign born

The Great Debate

Like any good debate, this topic really seems to polarize people. There is very little middle ground.

According to C&R Research, here is a breakdown of the percentage of kids that have their own cell phones:

  • 22% of all kids between the ages of 6 and 9
  • 60% of all kids between 10 and 14
  • 84% of teens between 15 and 18

As for our family, the Honeybee and I concluded that we would permit our kids to have their own phone when they reached their 12th birthday — assuming they could pay for it, of course.

We didn’t always think that way. If there was one thing the Honeybee and I never disagreed on it was that our kids would never have their own cell phones.

We didn’t have cell phones when we were kids, dammit, and we survived. Why would it be any different for kids today?

But as our kids got older both our opinions slowly started to change.

I think the biggest reason for our change of opinion was the increased peace of mind we had knowing that our kids could contact us at anytime, no matter where they were.

When we were kids there were payphones everywhere — in businesses large and small, in parks, and on just about every major street corner. No longer. In case you haven’t noticed, the payphone has pretty much gone the way of Rosanne Barr.

Another reason for giving our son a cell phone is that it teaches him the importance of being responsible. We’ve accepted that Matthew is going to make financial missteps as a kid, but we think it is better that he makes those mistakes while he is younger, when the financial ramifications are relatively harmless, rather than sheltering him until he is 18 — or even later — and having him learn those lessons then when the consequences are a lot more serious.

Kids, Bicycles and Cell Phones

One day after giving my son permission to ride his bike into town to get an ice cream cone I began to wonder: after James Starley invented the modern bicycle in 1885, how many parents insisted that their kids wouldn’t be allowed to own one of those new contraptions until they were adults because, dammit, they didn’t have bikes when they were kids! After all, they had to walk to the general store — two miles both ways — and they survived!

And while that isn’t a perfect analogy, I can definitely see similarities regarding how parents saw potential dangers for their kids with the invention of the cell phone and the bicycle. While parents today worry about potentially excessive cell phone bills, unsupervised Internet access, sexting, and texting while driving, I’m sure there were parents in the late 19th Century that had their worries too.

For example, I’m sure they not only fretted over the cost of the bike, but also injuries due to falls, and the fact that their son or daughter could potentially ride miles and miles away from home if they really wanted to — and maybe never even come back.

Scary thoughts to be sure.

The question for us as parents is when, if ever, should we give our kids the freedom and responsibility to try and manage those risks on their own?


  1. 1

    Kathy says

    I gave both my kids cell phones when they were 10 for the same reason you mentioned, which is peace of mind. No texting though.

  2. 2


    Well at least you got a lot of good, contructive criticism from Digg users. :)

    My oldest is about to turn six next month. Also have a 4 1/2 year old and a 9 month old. Cell phones are not in the immediate future for any of them.

  3. 3


    Wow…people on the Web are brutal. :) Kudos for not taking it to heart.

    My nieces are 11 and 9 and have a “joint” cell phone that they are only allowed to use to call their parents or immediate family, and only if they need something urgently. This has been the deal for about a year, and so far, it’s working out.

    You can bet that if they ever abuse the privilege, the phones will go away.

  4. 4

    Holly says

    12 was the magic number for our kids as well. I gave them cell phones partly, I’ll admit, for my own convenience. When they are finished at volleyball or football practice, or they want to know if they can stay for an extra hour at a friend’s house, they simply text me and I am on my way to pick them up (or not).

    Call me lazy, but it beats parking all the way by the field, walking to the (usually locked) school gym doors (esp. in driving rain or snow), and waiting in a hot gym while the coach gives them their pep talk or makes them run 10 more laps! I can pull up to the curb and they walk right to the car.

    My kids do not abuse their cell phone privilege; in fact, many times they have them turned off! My husband sometimes calls them from work and they do not answer. He then has to call the house phone. He asks why he should have even bought the phones when they rarely even use them?

  5. 5


    I’m not a parent, but I completely understand the convenience of being able to call them and tell them to get their as@! home immediately! It’s not like the old days where mom would stand on the front porch and holler as loudly as she could and if I didn’t hear her, then one of my friends did and relayed the message to me. I’m not so sure kids even play outside anymore! 😉

    As for those surly comments, I’ve noticed that the commentors on MSN are a wicked group of hecklers. My advice would be don’t bother responding to any negative comments, ignore them!

  6. 6


    First of all – those are some wild comments by some of the people who read the story elsewhere. Glad you take it with a sense of humor and can turn it around and have fun with it. I would probably do the same thing, realistically.

    Now to the phone bill. Wow, that’s an enormous amount of money for a kid’s phone bill.

    That said, 12 is certainly a typical age for kids to have a phone these days, as your stats corroborate. Lessons learned here all around. The big thing, as you alluded to, is that it’s better to make these mistakes when young than when an adult and it impacts a person most. This mistake is recoverable, but bigger ones when older are tougher. The good thing is that he will have learned a valuable lesson at a young age.

    My 7-year old was telling me about an 8-year old friend of hers that has her own phonee. I instantly thought THAT was a bit early, but apparently not atypical based on your stats. Anyway, I have been thinking that we need to get her a phone when she’s 10 – for emergencies primarily, thought of course a girl that age will have a different reason.

    So back to your situation – It seems like you have a great handle on this, and frankly I totally agree with the reasons you detailed for giving a 12-year old a phone and the concept of learning responsibilities. This will be a good learning opportunity!

  7. 7

    Jenna says

    I got my first cell phone at 13, right around the age I broke my leg and pretty much cut off from all my friends while in recovery. It made it easier for my friends to get a hold of me (no sharing the family line), for my parents to get me after doctors apt / rehab visits etc, and for emergencies, like when I fell and couldn’t get up. Granted most kids don’t have such extreme examples, but it was a great introduction to cell phones. But if I was a parent, I don’t see a need until freshman year of high school and even then very limited use.

    • 8


      @Wojo: Hello, my friend! How is the family? :-) Re: your nieces losing their phone if they abuse their privileges: It is the same for Matthew’s phone if he fails to make his monthly payments.
      @Holly: Parental convenience is a very legitimate reason for giving your kids a cell phone, IMO. No need to make any apologies. Your kids sound like me – half the time I have my cell phone turned off, much to the chagrin of my family!
      @Little House: Yes! Back when there was no such thing as 24-hour cartoon networks, XBox, and computers – and kids played outside all the time – my dad used to also used to stand on the porch when it was time for us to come home – only he would whistle as hard as he could. He could whistle so loud that his call could be heard on the next block. All the kids in my neighborhood knew it was time for the Penzo kids to come home when they heard my dad’s whistle! Good times.
      @Wise Squirrel: I know what you mean. There are first graders at my daughter’s elementary school with cell phones. How old is that, six or seven?
      @Jenna: You know, when I was in school I broke my leg and was in the hospital for 2 solid weeks. I know I sure could have used a cell phone back then – but the best they could do was give me a tin can and run a string for two miles between the hospital and my house. 😉

  8. 9


    @Len: Family is doing great! The little one is almost 7 months, which I absolutely cannot believe. I can’t wait to get back into writing. Did I mention I’ll be titling my new e-newsletter the Pecuniary Pepper in your honor? :)

    • 10


      Really, the Pecuniary Pepper? Awesome! I assume that means I get an honorary free subscription, right? 😉

      Let us know when you launch it so we can all sign up! :-)

  9. 11

    Jenna says

    @Len Penzo – no joke? I was only in the hospital for a week, but I missed the last half of 8th grade, March – June, critical social time for a young girl heading into high school…

  10. 13


    Yesterday, I had to chew out my 17 year old daughter for swiping my 10 year old niece’s cell phone. She was out of minutes on her phone and thought it was OK to borrow someone else’s. Cell phones are such status symbols for kids they can’t be without them.

    When we were kids, we would jump on our bikes and take off to get away from our parents. If you hung around the house, they quickly put you to work. We had to come home as soon as the streetlights came on. Other than that, we were pretty free. I think it was better.

  11. 16

    Seam says

    It seems like technology is taking over parental guidance, control, and common sense. What is this world coming to? The media and Technology has shaped the way people think and act. The excuses made out of fear to support a child having a cell phone are far reaching idiocies. Welcome to stupidity in American society.

  12. 17

    Pickeju says

    We settled on 13 as the magic age for our kids. Frankly, it is really convenient to be able to locate your kids so easily when they could be at a number of friends’ houses or at the park/basketball court/whatever. The other unintentional side effect we’ve discovered is that taking away the phone is The Ultimate Punishment. Our kids would rather give up tv, internet, AND playstation than give up their phone. We haven’t linked phone access to money yet, because our kids have to keep their grades up or lose their phone for the entire next grading period. It’s only happened once, and I venture to guess that it will never happen again.

    • 18


      Excellent point, Pickeju. Taking away the cell phone really is the “ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT!” lol

      I can threaten to ground my son and it barely affects him — but take away his phone and he always jumps right back in line!

  13. 19


    i got my cell phone for my 13th b-day! and it HAS come in handy! my sister and i (shes 11 almost 12 though) ride our bikes around our neighborhood and our mom usually calls us to make sure were ok (because theres a sex offender down one of the streets in our neighborhood) and not only is it good for that but when i get off from cheerleading practice i can call her and tell her where i am…..and our church is HUGE so she usually calls me and tells me where to meet her! and i know it sounds crazy but she also lets us (me and my 11 y/o sister)walk around the mall when shes shopping (at the same store of corse) and if she needs us or we need her all she does is call me….so see phones arnt just for fun/ texting ur friends!

  14. 20


    I agree with you particularly when it comes to the fact there are literally no pay phones about anymore. I find that really sad :( I don’t think cell phones or technology is a bad thing – I would want my son when he is older (he is only 3 right now) to have a phone so that when he is out he can contact me no matter what. If it gives one piece of mind and to let your children have a little more freedom then I think it is great – much better than worrying and not letting your child do things out of fear.

  15. 21


    I agree that children should only be given a cell phone with features that are just suitable to their needs. In addition to Firefly is the Just5 Easyphone. Aside from being simple, this also has an emergency response system, which is very helpful in ensuring their safety.

  16. 22


    i got my 1st cell phone when i was 12 i am now 13 and the main reason my parents got me 1 was so we can keep touch but they said it was ok 2 get a few of my friends number 2. so i think 12 or 13 is a good age 2 get ur 1st cell phone but u have 2 be responsible when u get 1.

  17. 26

    Bob says

    We are in our mid 30’s and we don’t have a cell phone because we can’t afford one but my mother-in-law seems to think its ok for her to buy a phone for my 13 year old step daughter. Clueless and Spoiled!

  18. 27

    Bob says

    Something else, my same step daughter stole my cell phone I used to have 2 years ago. She took it to school to call some fake Justin Bieber phone number one of her friends gave her. Then lied and tried putting it back on the table right in front of me with her back turned when she got home.

  19. 28

    Rei says

    I’m turning 16 in three weeks and I’ve had a mobile phone since I was 10 or 11, I believe. I can’t really remember because I never use it. I don’t think anyone really has an issue with the child HAVING a mobile. The problem is that they’re obsessed with the bloody things. My mate and I used to joke about the people who would go around never looking up from their phones and always getting caught with them in class. But then she got an iPhone and now she’s just like them. It’s sad, really, how a wee little thing like a phone can make people act so stupid.

  20. 29

    MissMolly says

    I think it’s difficult for non parents to understand the level of comfort being able to call your children brings a parent and vice-versa. Having worked in law enforcement, I have also (unfortunately)seen first hand, the benefit of how children having cell phones has aided in their safe recovery after attempted abductions. Even without the parents having the programs installed, as long as the phone has a charge and is turned on law enforcement can track that signal…sadly that was a factor in my decision to give in to getting cell phones for my children.

  21. 30

    Nandini bansal says

    yaa!!!I read all the comments and felt that u are right…i will be 13 in another 19 days but i dont have i phone still…..i sometimes feel bad when my friends show me their cell phnes…..but after reading all those comments i felt really better…..i never thought of those things……the debate is real great…..enjoy your life without phones!!!!!or probably with phones……but i really wish i could have 1 as i think i am enough responsible for it…..when i was 11 i once went on a trip and while returning back in train i lost my phne….so in those 2 years i reliased my mistake n tried to work on it the most!!!!!!but now m enough confident 2 have 1….n i did prove it 2 my parents……..

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