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Buying your child their first cell phone

What to consider

I got my first cell phone when I was 22-years-old. The first call I made was to my mom: “Hey Mom, guess what? I'm calling you from MY CAR!”

Given that I made it through my childhood, adolescence and college without a cell phone, I have a hard time thinking about giving my children one. And I confess to getting uncomfortable when I see a pre-teen walking around texting. But it's a new world, and technology will be a much bigger part of my children's lives than it was for me when I was a child.

What is the prevailing wisdom about children and cell phones? Going through the recent literature on the subject, it seems to be: 1) only give your child a cell phone when you deem them ready and 2) teach them how to use it responsibly.

The Pew Internet and American Life project did a study in 2009 that looked into cell phone use among children. It found that fully 75 percent of children had a cell phone, and of those 75 percent, the majority got their first phone between the ages of 11 to 13. According to the New York Times, Mediamark did a survey that found that 20 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 11 had a cell phone. This does not mean, the literature stressed, that parents should give their children cell phones as soon as they ask for it, or as soon as their friends get one.

“It all depends on how you plan to have your child use the phone," Jennifer Shu, M.D., author of The American Academy of Pediatrics Baby and Child Health told the Disney website Family Go.com. An article in the New York Times on children and cell phones stated that the decision to buy your child a cell phone “should hinge on more intangible factors, including personal responsibility, necessity and parental respect.” Is your child mature enough to follow the rules? Are they capable of using the phone the right way and for the right reasons?

Parents need to make sure that in addition to teaching their child about the technology, they also teach them the social rules of cell phone use: keeping their voices down, not having conversations in places like the movie theater or library, and not using their phone during class. Manners apply when it comes to phone use – only you can prevent your kids from being that guy who walks down the street yelling into his wireless headset.

It is also important to establish limits on use in terms of how many hours a day a child can use their phone and what time of day they can use it. The Pew study found that children sent over 50 text messages a day on their phones, to the point where they texted their friends more than they talked to them. Limits on the total number of minutes the phone can be used can be set up through the provider. But parents may want to treat phones like any other type of media.

As Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson said in the New York Times, “if you don’t believe a child should have a TV in his or her room, and many parents agree with that, then there shouldn’t be a cell phone in there either.” Dr. Swanson suggests keeping the charging cord to your child's phone in the kitchen, or another room of the house so that they won't have access to it in the middle of the night.

Another important question to ask yourself before buying your child their first cell phone is, do they understand the risks and how to protect themselves? Parents tend to think about the added safety that it will bring our child, but there are also increased dangers.

Some of the greatest concerns include: children coming into contact with online predators, children accessing inappropriate websites or apps, distracted teen drivers and the recent trend of “sexting.” Wired Child.org adds that children on phones may be less attentive to traffic, as was found in a 2009 study by the University of Alabama – Birmingham, which found and 10- and 11-year-olds who were talking on cell phones with a research assistant in simulated road crossings had more accidents and near misses with traffic.

Again, this is something a parent can address preemptively with their child by establishing rules about using the phone on the street and alerting them to other dangers.

Once you've decided that your kid can handle a phone and you've established some rules, what phone do you get? Service providers are well aware of the trend in pre-teen and teen cell phone use and have created many parental controls for phones that make your job easier. Some options:

 

  • Kajeet – a phone designed specifically for kids.

    • All other carriers provide the same services.

    • Kids may resent having a phone that is different from adult phones, and is “just for kids.”

       

  • Phones with prepaid plans.

  • These simple phones have limited capabilities in terms of data and voice plans – they do little more than phone calls and text messages.

  • Consumer reports recommends getting this kind of phone first, because it is less expensive (typically $20-$40), easy to replace if lost or damaged, and there is no contractual commitment.

 

  • Features available from most carriers (expect to pay about $5 a month for parental controls):
      • Location tracking

      • Restricted access to inappropriate sites and apps

      • Changes to phone capabilities can only be made by the parent via a password

      • Limit the number of minutes available

      • Limit which hours of the day phone can be used

      • Block the child from contacting anyone but those parties designated by parent

      • Prevent the child from texting photos

         

      • There is also software available that will send copies of the child's texts and photos to their parent's phone.