Cell Phones for Kids: When is the right time?

How do you decide when a "want" like a cell phone becomes a necessity?
How do you decide when a "want" like a cell phone becomes a necessity?

Not so long ago, giving children their own cell phones was an extravagance. As recently as 2004, just 18 percent of 12-year-olds had joined the mobile revolution, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Jump to 2011, and the same study reveals that 58 percent of 12-year-olds -- and almost 75 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 -- has his or her own phone. Even schools have gotten onboard, many of them easing restrictions so kids can bring their phones to school as long as they don't use them in class.

The switch from "extravagance" to perceived necessity came quickly, and many parents are surprised to learn their tween is, apparently, the only one of his or her friends who doesn't have one (please, please, please!). The decision over who should and should not get to call, text and surf on the go is one that a lot parents are dealing with much earlier than they expected, and it's a tough one: OK, at 17, it makes sense, since older teens spend a lot of time on their own and might need (actually need) to call someone. But 12? Eleven? Even 10 years old?

Every child is different, and there's no single age when it's suddenly appropriate for a kid to have a phone. When faced with the choice, there are several questions parents can ask themselves that can help in the decision-making process. Few of them will have definitive answers, but they can give a pretty good overall picture of whether your specific child is ready for a phone ...