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First steps, first test, first text
(DAVE MUNCH/STAFF ILLUSTRATION)

Once upon a time, in a magical period known as the '80s, cellphones were the sole property of Gordon Gekko-style Wall Street executives. Teens who wanted ownership over their phones were forced to deal exclusively with their own private landlines, or tie up their parents' lines with hours of discussion of the cutest member of New Kids on the Block.

In 2014, cellphones have become a inseparable part of many Americans' lives. According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of adults own their own cellphone, a number that jumps to 97 percent when measuring adults younger than 50.

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Today, cellphone ownership has fulfilled the role of an important milestone in a child's move toward independence, fitting in alongside driver's licenses and college applications. Unlike these other markers, however, there is no defined age for a kid's first phone, with a number of factors affecting when families feel they are ready.

According to Pew Research, 78 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 own a cellphone, with nearly half owning a smartphone.

Garrett Bolton, an employee of T-Mobile at the TownMall of Westminster, said 11 and 12 seems to be the average age for children coming in for their first cellphones.

"We don't really see any 8-year-olds coming in for an iPhone," Bolton said. "Once you get a few years older, though, you start to see a lot of people coming in."

With an average age of 11 or 12, a number of children are receiving their first cellphones while they are still in elementary school. According to a 2012 study by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, 40 percent of students receive their first cellphones by the end of fifth grade.

He said parents are often looking for a phone meant primarily for emergencies, though they often are buying full-service phones with the capability for gaming, photography and more. He said it splits about 50/50 between parents looking for the bare necessities and ones seeking to provide the full cellphone experience for their teens and tweens.

"Some parents don't want their kids to get a phone that will run the bill up, while others come in knowing exactly the phone their kids want," Bolton said. "We've had moms come in and just say, 'My son wants a Samsung Galaxy Note 4,' which is our most expensive phone. We'll tell them that and they'll still demand it."

Sara Grauser, 12, of Eldersburg, said she received her first cellphone just weeks ago. Her phone, a hand-me-down iPhone 5, was formerly her sister's before being wiped of information and given to her. She said her parents thought it was important for her to have because she walks home from school. She said she uses hers to play games and text her friends, but it's nice to know it's there in case of an emergency.

By contrast, her friend, Gabrielle Barquin, 12, of Eldersburg, said she doesn't currently have a cellphone and is in no real hurry to get one. She said her father said she'll have to be at least 14 before considering getting a phone, but even then, she's not overly concerned with owning one.

This year, Carroll County Public Schools provided an additional incentive for early adoption of cellphones with the introduction of the Bring Your Own Devices initiative, which began this school year.

Amy Gromada, principal at West Middle School, said because of the initiative, students are able to use cellphones however they wish in the hallways and cafeterias and other non-instructional periods. Cellphone use in the classroom is decided by each individual teacher. Despite the open use of cellphones, the school does have a blanket ban on photography or video recording.

Gromada said she received calls from parents after the announcement of the digital device initiative who were worried their children would be left behind or left out of instructions without a cellphone. Gromada said she emphasized that the initiative was completely voluntary, and students would be fine without a phone. Despite her assurances, she said several parents chose to purchase phones for their children before the beginning of the new school year.

"We actually have less issues with cellphones now than when they were banned," Gromada said. "Before we had to deal with them sneaking them. Now that it's out in the open, they use them inappropriately less."

Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or jacob.denobel@carrollcountytimes.com.

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