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?
©iStockphoto.com/Renphoto

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.

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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 ...

Ask Yourself

One important consideration? Determining how much you might miss out on if your child is able to communicate with peers exclusively by text.
One important consideration? Determining how much you might miss out on if your child is able to communicate with peers exclusively by text.
©iStockphoto.com/Juanmonino

Your child's reasons for wanting a phone are probably pretty straightforward. The social pressure to have one, especially for texting, can be intense as early as sixth grade. But for parents, one of the biggest reasons to even consider getting a young child a cell phone has to do with one thing: safety. No one wants a child stuck in a sketchy situation without the ability to easily call home.

Heck, no one wants a child stuck in "running a little late" situation without the ability to call home. The question is, though, is that a realistic concern?

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Is my child alone a lot?

There's nothing wrong with getting your child a phone for social reasons; but if the main reason you're considering the expenditure is so your child can always get in touch with you, and vice versa, you'll want to ask yourself whether your child is alone often enough to make the phone worthwhile.

If your child is, say, 12, and you do a lot of group movie-theater and mall drop-offs, it might be entirely reasonable to give your child a phone to call home. Likewise, if he or she gets to and from school alone or does a lot of solo afterschool activities, the safety issue may be a reason to take the plunge.

If, on the other hand, your child rides with you to and from school and is otherwise always in the presence of a responsible adult -- in other words, is an 8-year-old -- you may want to reconsider the cell-phone-for-safety reasoning.

Is my child responsible?

It goes without saying, a child who regularly loses toys, headbands, house keys, school books and lunch bags, and has been known to return from school with just one shoe is probably not going to hang on to a cell phone for very long. Why bother?

Does my child typically follow my rules?

Most smart parents lay ground rules when they give their child his or her own phone. Otherwise, you're looking not only at potential (and potentially exorbitant) charges but also, in the case of Internet-connected, camera- and/or video-equipped phones, some safety concerns about how, when and with whom your little one is communicating. If your child is the rule-breaking type, it might be asking for trouble to entrust him or her with a phone.

These are the big questions to ask, but there's another issue that a lot of parents simply don't think about in this debate: Do you want your child to have a greatly increased level of privacy? For younger children, such as elementary and middle-school kids, you might find that adding a cell phone to the mix leads to you learning far less about their lives (with teens, it may not be a notable decrease). Understand that while you may be primarily interested in safety and family communication, your child is likely more interested in the ability to communicate privately with friends. Determine how much you might miss out on if your child is able to communicate with peers exclusively by text.

Increasingly, though, these last two concerns are being effectively addressed by mobile-phone carriers and software companies, leading to some interesting dynamics in the family phone plan.

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.

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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!"

For more information on kids and technology, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Conger, Cristen. "Should You Get Your Kid a Cell Phone?" Discovery News via ABC News. April 16, 2011. (Feb. 28, 2012) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/kids-cell-phones-child-phone/story?id=13385091#.T0z9rPWx5m4
  • Olsen, Stephanie. "When to buy your child a cellphone." The New York Times. June 9, 2010. (Feb. 28, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/technology/personaltech/10basics.html?pagewanted=all
  • Singletary, Michelle. "Cellphones for kids are more gadget than necessity." The Washington Post. Nov. 25, 2011. (Feb. 28, 2012) http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/cellphones-for-kids-are-more-gadget-than-necessity/2011/11/21/gIQAIfg1vN_story.html
  • T-Mobile: Budget (Feb. 28, 2012) http://family.t-mobile.com/phone-budget
  • T-Mobile: Safety (Feb. 28, 2012) http://family.t-mobile.com/safety-and-security