For many cell phone owners, safety is a primary benefit. Fully 98% of parents agree with the statement: "A major reason my child has a cell phone is so we can be in touch no matter where he/she is." Every African-American parent in our survey whose teenage child has a cell phone agreed with this assertion, as did 98% of white parents and 95% of Hispanic parents.
Moreover, personal safety is a significant factor among those who own cell phones. Fully 94% of parents and 93% of those ages 12-17 agreed with the statement: "I feel safer because I can always use my cell phone to get help." Girls and mothers are more likely than boys and fathers to agree with that. Some 97% of teen girls ages 12-to-17 who own cell phones and 98% of the mothers who own cell phones agree with the statement that they feel safer "because I can always use my cell phone to get help." That compares with 89% of teen boys and 89% of fathers who say they agree with that statement. Every single girl respondent in our survey who was age 12 or 13 said she agreed with this statement and 95% of the older teen girls – those ages 14-17 – agreed.
In contrast to the near-universal appeal of the safety dimensions of cell ownership, this study wanted to see if parents felt that maintaining their child’s friendships was a primary motivation for acquiring this new communication tool. Just 36% of parents with a teenager who has a cell phone agreed with the statement: "A major reason my child has a cell phone is to keep in touch with friends." Fathers (44%) were more likely than mothers (31%) to agree that a major reason their children had cell phones was to keep in touch with friends. Parents of older teens were more likely to agree with this than parents of younger teens.
Focus group discussions with teens bore out these findings. Asked when and why they first got a cell phone, most teens cited the safety, security and ease of communication with parents provided by cell phones as the initial reason they got one. Many said that getting a cell phone was their parents’ idea, not their own. Typical is the story of one high school boy, who explained that he got his cell phone "when I was twelve…my mom got it for me to communicate with my parents, if I was going to be late from school or walking home. I didn’t care that much about it. It was cool to have, but I got along fine without it." Other teens expressed similar sentiments; one high school girl said, "My parents were more of the instigators and actually got it for me, rather than me asking for it," while a middle school boy explained, "I was ten, but I didn’t really need it. But my parents thought it was time I get one."
It was clear from the focus groups that at least in the beginning, parents rely more on the cell phone for its connectivity than do their children, and that safety is usually driving the decision to purchase a child his or her first cell phone. Over time, as the teen masters the phone and incorporates it into his or her social life, the balance shifts and the phone becomes a core communication tool for the child.
Still, teens—especially teen girls—appreciate the security a cell phone provides and come to rely on it. One high school girl described herself as being "hysterical" for several hours when she found herself home alone without her cell phone, fearing that something would happen to her and she would not be able to call someone for help. This may be an extreme example, but it speaks to the sense of security a cell phone provides, for both teens and their parents.