In the olden days, before computers and space-age phones, giving your child a wristwatch was considered a rite of passage. It assumed an adult level of knowledge regarding the importance of time management and a high level of responsibility, too. Fast-forward a handful of technological breakthroughs, and kid-friendly mobile phones have taken the place of the simple wrist-mounted timepiece as a mark of maturity.
Giving a child a cell phone has a few parental benefits: It's a lifeline in case of an emergency. It's also an effective way to check on your brood throughout the day and stay alert to scheduling changes. If you think your child is reliable enough for the challenge, there are some legitimate incentives to at least exploring the options.
Let's take a look at some practical phone choices for kids that will make your child safer (and certainly happier) without making you cringe every time you look at the charges on your monthly statement. Some kid-friendly phones even offer options for sidestepping the maturity issue in favor of tech-savvy parental oversight or sneaky pay-as-you-go budget boosters.
Conventional Cell Phones
Even though smartphones are getting most of the hype these days, a conventional cell phone may incorporate just the right blend of functionality and common sense for your youngster. The idea here is that leaving off some of the bells and whistles will keep your child from getting too distracted. Conventional cell phones can be a bargain, too, and may be offered free when you sign a service contract. They'll likely at least be sold at a discount when you add your child to an existing family plan. If you buy them outright, these phones can sell for as little as $20, with an upward limit of around $150. At the low end of the price range, the phone will still allow your child to preprogram frequently called numbers and send and receive texts. According to Consumer Reports, the layout of these basic units is somewhat compact, but the operation is still pretty straightforward.
Higher-end conventional cell phones offer some of the features you might expect in the more expensive smartphones, including: touch screens, Bluetooth functionality, QWERTY keyboards, onboard data storage, a full browser, some single gaming capability and programmable functions like customized ringtones. This may be more functionality than you want your child to have access to, though. All phone equipment isn't compatible with all service providers, so check for the best service deal before you shop.
Prepaid Cell Phones
Prepaid cell phones are easy to use and easy on the pocketbook. They're available without contracts, without termination fees and with low activation fees. A few are designed especially for kids and include onboard parental controls like in-and-out call screening. The units themselves are typically pretty reliable and sturdy, too. Some, like the Kajeet kid series phones, are budget friendly and sport eye popping graphics designed for the younger set. You may even be able to integrate a prepaid phone with your family plan later, though of course you'll need to make sure the phone is compatible with your current service provider.
With a prepaid cell phone there won't be any unhappy surprises at the end of the month. Once the prepaid texts or minutes have been used, the phone won't function until it receives a new infusion of cash. A pay-as-you-go approach is a bonus when your child is in the middle of cell phone training 101. After that, use your own judgment.
Like the name implies, these phones are designed to function until the minutes package you purchase has been depleted. After that, you pitch the phone. There are a variety of disposable cell phones on the market, but they typically have limited functionality and carry a bargain basement price tag.
Disposable phones may not be efficient (or green) as a long-term solution, but for a small introductory test period, they'll give your child some practical experience using a cell phone without much risk to you. If he loses the disposable, you won't be out much money, and your child will have learned a valuable lesson. A bad experience might even give you a breather before having to revisit the cell phone discussion again in a month or two.
If your child does treat the phone responsibly, you'll probably feel more comfortable buying him a quality phone and adding him to your family calling plan (with the increased risk of higher-than-expected usage). If there's some initial grousing regarding the disposable option, you can explain that a successful test period may encourage you to opt for a better permanent phone than you would otherwise. Everybody wins.
Disposable phones are also good fall-back options if your child is hard on his stuff and he's going away to camp or to visit relatives for a few weeks. If the phone ends up at the bottom of a lake somewhere, no harm done.
Smart phones are the premier phones on the market today. They're fast and often have large displays. Because they have operating systems like a computer, they're typically compatible with thousands or sometimes hundreds of thousands of applications, or apps, and can surf the Web at lightning speed. These are not considered phones for young children, but let's think about your older child for a second: If you have a responsible, tech-savvy teenager with academic aspirations, this is one handheld tool that could give her an edge in her studies and beyond.
Having this type of mobile functionality at her fingertips will allow your teen to download an app that will, say, identify all the trees (or plants or cars) she passes on her way home, or automatically translate the menu at your favorite Cuban restaurant. It provides a learning-on-the-fly opportunity with incredible potential no conventional classroom experience can match. Could all that powerful functionality be abused? Sure, but if you trust your teen and can afford this kind of pricy device, it certainly makes you wish you had one way back when, doesn't it?
Kid-friendly phones come in a number of flavors, including conventional cell phone and prepaid cell phone varieties. A number of things set them apart: They're often more ruggedly constructed than cell phones designed for adults. Some will also have slightly larger keys that are perfect for small, chubby fingers. They'll be visually designed for kids, too, sporting bright colors and recognizable graphics.
Phones designed for younger kids may have very limited functionality, too. The face of the phone might only have four or five buttons. The idea is to preprogram home and emergency numbers into the phone to keep things simple and dispense with advanced features your young child wouldn't use anyway. These phones will also often include an approved list of incoming phone numbers you can select and change as needed.
The most dynamic features available in kid-friendly phones are the parental controls. Think of them as commands you set to keep your child's phone activities safe and sane. Although features vary, parental controls can include the approved list of numbers mentioned above, as well as the ability to curtail phone use during specific times of the day, like during school hours. If the phone has Internet access, parental controls may include a list of banned keywords and search terms. There may also be the option to disable Internet access completely. High-end phones for kids may also include built-in GPS chips that can locate your child or his phone in the event one or both become lost.
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