The Effect of Cell Phones on American Families

by Jonathan Vankin

In the early 20th century, a new invention called the telephone altered the way people communicate. By the end of the century, mobile phones changed the dynamics of family relationships as well. As soon as the cell phone was widely available and affordable, children and teenagers made it their top form of communication. The new cellular world created a new set of challenges for parents, but there are benefits for families as well.

How Cell Phones Became Widely Available

Until 1983, cell phones were used almost exclusively in cars.

Cell phones weren’t always small, easy-to-carry, personalized devices. In 1973, the phone that made the first mobile call weighed 2.5 pounds. Until 1983, mobile phones remained too bulky for anywhere but the car. Motorola then introduced a hand-held phone, but it was large and had only a half-hour of battery life and a price tag near $4,000. Pocket-sized mobile phones didn’t come on the market until the late 1990s. Convenience and the low prices now let anyone, even kids, own a cell phone. By 2010, 77 percent of American teenagers had one.

Improvements in Parent-Child Communication With Cell Phones

Text messaging is now the No. 1 way teenagers communicate.

While today’s smartphones, such as Apple’s iPhone, perform all kinds of space-age functions, none is as popular with kids as text messaging. A 2009 survey showed teen phone calling on the decline while texting continued to rise. Texting outstripped phone calls and in-person socializing for teenagers. This is not all bad. Parents can now use text to reach taciturn teens. Child psychiatrist Laura Praeger reports that children will respond to text even while ignoring embarrassing parental phone calls. Teens even send pictures via text, allowing parents to view their whereabouts.

Cell Use Creates New Challenges for Parents

Kids now compete with cell phones for parental attention.

Cell access opens up a new world for teenagers, and for parents to monitor: the cyber world. In addition to “real” friends and activities, young people have a separate life through phones, via text and Internet. Human development expert Rob Weisskirch, author of a major study on cell phones and families, states that just as parents should know their kids' “face-to-face friends,” they need to know “cyber friends" as well. Parents can be just as guilty of cell misuse, fielding texts and cell calls during dinner and other family activities. This creates additional stress on children who already compete for parents’ time and now must compete for attention with the parental cyber world as well.

How Parents Should Handle Kids' Cell Phone Activities

Parents need to set rules and expectations for teens' cell phone use.

Weisskirch’s research showed that families felt their relationships grew closer when kids used the cell to ask parents for advice and support. But benefits were largely one-way. When parents called kids to check on their activities such as schoolwork, or when parents called on the cell to express anger, teenagers displayed a drop in self-esteem. Better results occurred when kids initiated cellular communication. Weisskirch and other experts recommend that parents set rules and expectations for cell use and set consequences for falling short of those expectations, such as temporarily taking away the phone. “Teens will survive,” says Weisskirch, “without cell phones for a day or more.”

About the Author

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.

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