Parents: I sympathize with you. The pressure that comes to bear from an adolescent who wants a cell phone is tremendous. Furthermore, they will resort to all sorts of underhanded emotional and psychological tactics to try and make you cave and buy them a cell phone. In the past, parents only had to prepare themselves for the debate over their adolescent having a new car when they earned their license. Now they still have to wage this battle, but preceding it is the cell phone ambush. You may never see it coming.
It could begin with either a subtle setting of the stage like, "I read a story on the Internet where a girls' cellphone was swallowed by the family dog, which ran away, and they were able to track it using the GPS on the phone. Isn't that awesome?" Or the direct bull-in-china-shop approach like "I need a cellphone or you'll never know what I'm doing. You don't want that Mom. Seriously. You don't."
It does absolutely no good to say something like, "I made it through my entire time in school without a cell phone - I think you can too." They don't see the logic in that argument, because they can't fathom the context of it. It necessitates a world without cell phones and that just can't be. Heck, a world without smart phones is almost incomprehensible to these students.
Now, let me step back and acknowledge this doesn't need to be an us versus them type of deal, but I've heard from enough parents and students to know that it certainly feels that way. I also know that a lot of middle schoolers have cell phones and smart phones - I'll address this a bit later on. Obviously, most of what you read above is written with my tongue firmly in my cheek, but there are some things we can take away from this 21st Century family crossroads.
First, in all honesty your child doesn't need a cell phone in middle school. Every school should have plenty of phones in the building or main office and most schools have emergency communication systems to alert parents if there is a major issue. Often, children say it would be more convenient to call the parents if a game ends early or they want to go home with a friend after play practice if they had a phone. Again, anything a middle school-aged child is involved in should, ostensibly, have adult supervision and whatever adult is there will have a phone they can use.
Second, I'd say kids don't need a cellphone until they're driving. With appropriate education about the potential distractions of texting while driving or talking while driving, kids at this age can have a phone in case of an accident or to call before (or after) curfew to allay anxieties, or to find the safest ride home. It allows for independence while maintaining a quick and timely link home. Middle schoolers will always be under the supervision of adults and therefore the preceding reasons need not apply.
Third, if you do provide a cellphone to your child before they drive make sure you control it. Ask your provider about the family plans and the security options for your son or daughter's phone. These phones are essentially small computers with IM, text, camera, video, mp3, Internet access, and email capabilities. Make sure you are watching and checking (See Circle the Wagons, February 2011 for more thoughts on monitoring your child's screen time) what goes on on your child's phone.
Fourth, if your child has a phone, try as much as possible to create a context where your child believes they have your phone on loan. You might try this:
"Dave, your mother and I went to the store and I was able to get a new phone," the father says with a smile.
Dave responds with a grin from ear to ear, "Dad, are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"Absolutely not, Dave. I'm saying I have an extra phone which I will allow you to use on a one-strike-you're-out basis," replies the father, also with a grin from ear to ear.
(Author's note: This is exactly how my father would have handled it were he to be having the conversation. He'd sometimes blow up the balloon and pop it right in front of you to make sure you knew who was running the show. God love him.)
The key is to outline what constitutes strikes (make it clear and concise) and then follow through. Make sure the phone is charged in a common place and do not allow it to be in the bedroom with your child. This will only lead to late night distraction and a lack of sleep, which is crucial for adolescents.
Finally, if your child has a cell phone or not, teach them the values you believe in and expect they will apply these values to how they use the cellphone. Promote social interaction - do not allow cell phones at the dinner table or out to eat.
Take heart, you're not the only one locked in a pitched battle over the purchase of a cell phone. All parents of adolescents have had this discussion with their child. Talk to each other and get some pointers on how to manage it. You know where I stand...
See also Rosalind Wiseman's website to the right. She speaks to many of the points above.