Last month, my husband and I bought a cell phone for our daughter. She is 9 years old.
Our daughter is among the 22 percent of the country's grade-school kids who own a cell phone, according to C&R Research. By the time she reaches middle school, 60 percent or more of her friends will have caught up. And these numbers are going up by the minute.
In her first few hours of cell-phone ownership, our daughter exchanged more than 80 text messages with her best friend. We advised her friend's parents to change their plan.
Apparently, these two 9-year-olds aren't alone. Verizon executive Harry Martin said at a press event this month that the network is fielding 162 billion text messages per quarter. That's 648 billion text messages a year on Verizon alone. "That's why many people are moving to unlimited text plans," Martin said.
Verizon unveiled a few new phones at the event. I noticed one small phone, square with rounded corners, that could fit in the palm of my hand. It was the not-yet-released Kin 2 by Microsoft. It has a Windows operating system that is so totally integrated with social-networking sites that you wonder if it's a phone at all.
I could almost hear the "It's so cute!" shrieks from my daughter and her cohorts. As soon as you see the miniature phone, you can tell its true market is children - children with their own Facebook accounts. When you visit the Kin Web site, you're bombarded with well-produced videos of teens and young adults having fun and posting pictures to social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. The slogan "The more you share, the more you get" flashes across the screen.
Our daughter doesn't have her own Facebook account, but she uses mine to play Farmville, a popular game by the ubiquitous developer Zynga. I've seen at least three of the kids in her fourth-grade homeroom on Facebook, despite the site guideline that no one under 13 should have an account.
What's a parent to do? Worrying about texting seems positively quaint when compared to the pitfalls of social networking. We don't want strangers texting our kid, but that's far less likely than the possibility that our daughter will develop an inappropriate "sharing" habit via social networking. These new phones, marketed directly to her age group, will take the meaning of "too much information" to a whole new, grade-school level.
My husband and I have stanched the bleeding for now by buying our daughter a "locked-down" phone that can't access the Internet. Although she could rack up big bills by downloading videos and music from the Verizon site (Martin says they have 38 million such downloads a quarter), she can't visit Facebook or any other Web site with it. In a few years, though, she'll be asking for an Internet-enabled device.
We'll take the risk. We want her to be able to call us in an emergency. (Of course, her current "emergencies" are missing the activity bus or wanting to go to a friend's house after school.)
Our parental anxieties about bad guys lurking around every corner keep us wanting more and more of an electronic connection with our offspring - despite the lack of statistical support for those anxieties. According to Prevent Child Abuse, 70 to 90 percent of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by someone they know.
Social networking could be a more serious risk than strangers. As our daughter charts her life with pictures and videos, she'll face the possibility of more public embarrassment, harassment, prejudice, and stupidity in one year than we've experienced in our whole lives. The more she shares, the more she'll get.
Before our daughter gets the Internet in her pocket, contracts will be signed. I'm not talking about contracts with Verizon; I mean contracts between her and us. SafeKids.com offers two contracts setting down expected behavior for kids as well as parents. Kids agree to things like "I will not give out personal information," and parents agree to "not overreact if my child tells me about a problem he or she is having on the Internet."
We'll be presenting the contracts to our daughter to cover her online time at home and, eventually, on a mobile phone. We had many dinnertime discussions prior to getting her current cell phone. Our mantra was that it's our job to keep her safe, and hers to be open and honest with us about any problems. In the end, we told her, it's about trust. The more she shares, the more she'll get.