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Cell Phones for Kids: When is the right time?

        Tech | Tech for Kids

If You Do It: Cell Phone Restrictions

While the decision to entrust a child with a cell phone is an individual one, there is at least one thing that every parent who goes ahead with it should do, regardless of the child's age or responsibility level: Set rules.

One of the biggest mistakes parents can make in this area is to assume their kid knows what is and is not appropriate use. In too many cases, this can lead to overage charges, falling school performance due to distractions and even unsafe practices. The best way to minimize the chance of real problems is to set forth clear rules from the outset, including when and where it's appropriate to use the phone and how many minutes, messages and downloads are allowed per billing cycle.

Even more important, though, are the safety issues. Who is your child texting? What is your child downloading?

Many safety concerns -- and concerns about distraction, for that matter -- can now be handled via parental restrictions that put most of the power in the parents' rather than the child's hands. The options are many and varied. Cell phone and third-party-software companies make it possible to:

  • Restrict the times when a phone can be used
  • Decide what it can be used for
  • Determine how much data and minutes are allowed before the phone is cut off (except from receiving your calls, of course)
  • Set which Web sites and download types can and can't be accessed
  • Arrange for copies of text messages to be forwarded to a parent's phone for review, which may spur your child to stop texting friends altogether, if that's what you're going for

These features, of course, cost money, but in many cases they're included in a family-plan bundle that suddenly doesn't cost a whole lot more than what you're paying for yourself. Phone companies have figured out that kids are a big market, and it's in the companies' interest to make it affordable for parents to add on young family members who will no doubt be using cell phones for a long, long time to come.

It's worth noting here that most experts say to avoid Internet-connected and camera-equipped phones for the youngest users, in order to avoid having to address the most difficult cell-phone issues with children who may not completely understand them. Which brings us finally to the question: Who are the recommended "youngest users"?

In general, child-development experts advise parents not to get phones for kids younger than 11. In the end, though, it's an entirely individual decision, and parents are the best ones to determine what their child needs and is ready for -- a determination best made, by the way, out of earshot of "please, please, please!"

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