We started having The Conversation in third grade.
Not where babies come from.
My son went on a field trip, and two of his friends brought cellphones along for the bus ride — which they used, amid much hysterical laughter, to leave unintelligible messages on our answering machine. Something about Frankenstein.
He didn’t ask for one that day, but it got the question rolling around in his head. When he finally worked up the nerve, our answer was, “Not until middle school.”
Like most other parents, we worried about the impact of cellphones and digital technology on our son’s attention span, learning and social skills. He doesn’t have a Facebook page or email account, and we figured the longer we put off a phone, the better.
He accepted that without complaint, though more classmates picked up phones along the way.
When he started middle school last year, we talked about it again but never got around to it. We kept forgetting to check our wireless plan to see exactly how much this enterprise would cost us. We worried about him losing his phone.
Plus, he didn’t really need one. My husband and I took him to school every day and picked him up afterward, and one of us almost always attended his games and other activities. If we didn’t, we knew other parents who did.
And he could call his friends from home for those oh-so-brief conversations boys have: What are you doing? Nothing. Wanna hang out? Sure.
Before we knew it, the school year was over, sans phone.
During the summer, though, we noticed more of his friends calling — or texting — each other on their cellphones to meet at the park for a pickup basketball or baseball game. We realized a cellphone might become an essential social tool for our son — raising an entirely new set of issues, of course — but we were still reluctant to go down that digital path.
When school started this fall, we figured it was time. He’s in seventh grade and has turned out to be pretty responsible (fates, please do not punish me for writing that sentence).
A health crisis finally forced the issue. When my husband was hospitalized unexpectedly, we realized we needed a way to get word directly to our son if, for instance, one of us couldn’t pick him up that day.
Our plan let us add him for just $10 a month, and we found a basic phone for less than $50. We laid down all the rules: texts subject to our review; no unauthorized contacts; no replacement phone if it gets lost; etc.
So far, he’s shown remarkable restraint. He spent the first few giddy hours collecting phone numbers of friends and relatives. But by the next morning, he had yet to send a text. I found myself actually encouraging him to do so — recalling the time I had to force his suspicious 4-year-old palate to try a BROWNIE.
Even now, his texts are typical shorthand — one word or even one character. Even “OK” is shortened to “k.” Witness this exchange (not that I’m spying) after he asked his friend if he should be a golfer or basketball player for Halloween: “IDK.” “just pick one” “golfer.” “cool.”
He doesn’t like taking his phone to school because he doesn’t want it to get stolen or lost, and he can’t have it on during class anyway. So much for our plans.
Was he the right age? I guess we’ll see.
Apparently we’re behind the curve. A 2011 study in Massachusetts, part of a Yale Information Society Project on children’s online privacy, showed that 20 percent of third-graders and 39 percent of fifth-graders had cellphones. In middle school, the figure topped 83 percent, as reported in The Atlantic.
Urbana Middle School Principal Scott Woods said most of his students have cellphones or a similar device, like an iPod touch.
Under school policy, they’re not allowed to carry them in school; phones have to be turned off and stored in their lockers. Champaign schools allow middle and high school students to carry phones, but they have to be turned off during class.
Woods said schools respect that parents want their children to have phones for any number of reasons, including safety. But he’s not comfortable having phones in the classroom.
For one, they’re disruptive — oddly, not all students follow the rules — and administrators don’t want kids recording each other without permission.
Parents also sometimes call or text their kids during the school day, which is a problem if the student forgets to turn off the phone, Woods said. And an outright ban builds “a pretty good metaphorical wall” between what kids do on Facebook or other social media and the school.
Still, because cellphones have become so pervasive, Urbana is exploring “how we can allow kids a little more freedom,” he said.
Their phones could be an invaluable teaching tool. Schools can’t afford to buy every student an iPad, but these days kids essentially have computers in their pockets, Woods said.
A new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, in fact, showed cellphones are the most commonly used digital resource for students in the classroom.
Researchers surveyed more than 2,000 teachers nationwide on the impact of the Web and digital search tools on teens’ writing skills, research and work habits. About three-quarters of the teachers said they’ve had a mostly positive impact on their students’ research habits, allowing them to be more self-reliant and easily engage a wealth of information.
But 87 percent also said they are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans,” and 64 percent said they “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”
So the jury is out.
Meanwhile, after seeing my son’s new phone, my fourth-grade daughter asked when it would be her turn.
So far my answer hasn’t changed.
Links: Thinking about getting your child a cell phone? Check out the parents' guide from Common Sense Media.
Julie Wurth writes about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Photo: News-Gazette file photo