LOS ANGELES — St. Louis mother Debbie Petersen has a problem: a home with a single phone line and a 13-year-old daughter.
Her solution: Her teenager is getting a phone line for Christmas.
Her daughter is on the phone now so often "I can't ever get through to her," says the working mom, "and she needs to be able to stay in touch with her friends."
This debate, whether to give - or not to give - a phone to a budding teen has become a familiar one in many households. But safety concerns and technology advances are making the debate today more nuanced.
"It's not just a phone," says Manhattan Beach child psychologist Muriel Savikas. Whether or not to bestow either a private home phone, a modem line, or a cell phone on a child is not simply a matter of convenience. Rather, she says, "it represents everything that a family values."
This includes issues of safety, individuality, as well as privacy and when or how a parent cultivates independence in a child, topics that have recently taken on a new resonance. Consider:
*How a handful of the students barricaded inside the Littleton, Colo., high school, in classrooms without phones, were able to contact their parents and police via their own cell phones.
*According to the Family Research Council, 10,000 new pornography sites are added to the Internet every month. Children with phones in their rooms, like the shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, may have unmonitored access to the Internet.
"The telephone is representative of the first branch into the outside world," says Dr. Savikas, also author of the book "Guilt is Good: What Working Moms Need to Know." The introduction of a telephone becomes a powerful mirror for both sides, reflecting "how well the parents have done their job and how mature the child is."
A history of trust?
The first issue to consider, she says, is the history of handling important transitions in a family. "How have the parents and teens set limits before and how have they adhered to or defied those limits?" she adds.
If a child is going to take that step away from the family and into his or her own connection to the outside world, both the parents and the child have to be able to agree on the parameters. Trust is an issue with any transition, she says, and it makes the next step possible.
Beyond that, there are developmental reasons for a parent to consider giving a child a phone, says Elayne Savage, author of "Don't Take It Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection." "The most important thing is that children have contact with their peers," she says, adding that peers are one of the key developmental tools children have in helping them define themselves.
While the need for parents to know their children's friends has been a vital message sent from the Colorado tragedy, Dr. Savage says that trust is still the most important tool a parent has. "Kids get really upset if they think their parents are too intrusive," she says. "All these decisions have to be based on an individual assessment of the child's maturity and readiness for a step toward independence."
There are less expensive alternatives to a phone of their own, she says. Many parents now give their children beepers for basic communications, and there is always voice mail or call waiting. "But a teen has to be trusted to take a reliable message if the family is going to depend on call waiting," she says.
Only for drug dealers
On the other end of the spectrum, Robert Knight, senior director of cultural studies at the Washington-based Family Research Council, says he sees few, if any, good reasons for a child to have a phone or a beeper.
"I would possibly lend my child a cell phone if he were going to a remote area without any means of communication." Other than that, he says, "only drug dealers walk around with cell phones and beepers. Is that what you want your child to look like?"
Giving a child his own phone, he says, creates a cocoon of separation in which "you lose any ability to monitor his relationship and how he spends his time." But Mr. Knight says that technology isn't the real question. "The bigger issue," he says, "is the amount of interest parents show in their kids."
Knight maintains that many of today's parents, busy and overworked, hand over responsibility to their children at too young an age, a practice he's dubbed "exaggerated child competence." In doing so, he says, "adults are relieved of some of their responsibilities." The inevitable result is children who are being raised by other "teens who are as clueless as they are."
Karen, a twenty-something who works as at a Los Angeles Air Touch cell phone office, says she got her first phone when she was 16. "My parents wanted me to have it for safety reasons," she says. She never abused the privilege by running up huge bills, she proudly adds.
Now, she advises parents about their options. "Most phone companies have all sorts of options for parents and children, such as teen lines or teen add-ons to family lines," she says. During her school years, including college, she never had a serious emergency, "but I was always glad I had the phone, even just to reassure my parents I was OK."
Back in St. Louis, Ms. Petersen says she expects some adjustments with a new phone line for her daughter. But, she says, a discussion about the rules will come before the phone goes in.
"She won't be allowed to shut herself up in her room and talk forever," she says. If she and her daughter couldn't agree about phone usage or monitoring, she'd pull the plug. After all, she adds, I pay the bill.