When Should Your Child Get a Cell Phone?

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May 16, 2011 by middleearthnj

They are everywhere. Cell phones have become a major part of the American culture and that trend is seeping into the youngest generations as well. A recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that around 75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds own a mobile device. In 2004, less than half of that age group owned phones. The same study found that 58 percent of 12-year-olds have a cellphone, up from 18 percent in 2004. Cell phone ownership has increased most dramatically (80%) over the past five years among 10- to 11-year olds.

With children as young as 8 years old asking for a cell phone, many parents are not sure what the appropriate age is to bestow a phone. Making it worse, child development experts haven’t recommended an ideal age. Since there is no “magic number,” we decided to think through a variety of factors that could impact a parent’s decision.

Does your child really need a cell phone?

The short answer is probably not. However, that doesn’t mean that a cell phone is totally impractical. When your child enters middle school, he or she will become more independent and often have a busy, and sometimes unpredictable, schedule. When children begin traveling alone to and from school, or to after-school activities, a cell phone could be useful to call a parent to change activities at the last minute or coordinate rides.

Consider why your child will use a phone. The Pew study found that kids ages six to eleven generally fire up their phones to call Mom and Dad. Though not surprisingly, as children grow into tweens and teens, their cell phone activity transitions from family to friends.

Can your child be responsible with a phone?

Putting a cell phone in children’s hands before they are able to take care of the technology might be a waste of money and could prematurely erode family intercommunication. Cell phones require some maturity and a sense of responsibility to ensure they are always charged and that they don’t get dropped from out of a backpack, put through the rinse cycle in the washing machine, lost, or become the instrument of inappropriate text messages or images. Parents should objectively evaluate their child’s maturity level and how well their child handles distraction and responsibility. Additionally, children often use phones to plug into friends, which can quickly mean they tune out of family interaction.

Can you afford to give your child a phone?

Parents should price out several calling plans from different providers and see whether the cost fits into their budget. Family calling plans are reasonably priced, and many have incorporated tweens and their cell phone habits into the package. Many families should consider unlimited plans so that they are not surprised with a large bill if their child goes over the minutes or texting limits. This generation is especially fond of texting and can quickly surpass limits without realizing it.

When choosing a phone for a child, a big consideration is whether to buy a feature phone or a smartphone. Children are very eager to have these types of phones, but they cost much more and also open a can of worms allowing them access to the Internet on their phone. To explain, a feature phone generally has a camera, Web access and a slide-out qwerty keyboard, but not the operating system with the applications that can be downloaded on a smartphone. With some carriers, you can buy a feature phone and not get a data plan (which allows Internet access), but others have started to eliminate this combination. Parents should realize that buying any kind of phone with Web access essentially allows their children unsupervised access to content and tools, like social networking and videos, that they may forbid on the home computer.

Parents who do not want to buy a feature phone or smartphone might consider an inexpensive prepaid phone that comes without a contract and is not part of a family plan. For as little as $10, parents can load the phone with 30 minutes of calls. The Pew study reported that 18 percent of teenagers used these plans and that teenagers who did were typically more tempered in their use.

Can your child follow the rules?

If a parent decides to get their child a phone, we strongly recommend establishing the rules for the cell phone before you put it in their hot little hands. Creating a cell phone contract between the parent and child is an excellent way to teach the responsibilities that come with having a cell phone. Even if the parent does not implement a written contract, the rules should be very clear. Examples of rules that you would want to set for your child include:

  • do not send threatening, embarrassing or mean texts to others;
  • do not text or call anyone after a certain time;
  • follow school rules about cell phone usage (More and more schools are not allowing cell phones on premises or are requiring that they be turned off completely during school hours, with consequences if they’re not.);
  • promise to tell parents if they are receiving suspicious or harassing messages;
  • do not exceed the plan’s monthly minutes or text message limits;
  • do not use the phone during designated hours (such as after 10 p.m.);
  • promise to keep cell phone charged and in good condition; and
  • promise to not bring phone to the dinner table and to turn it off in church and other quiet settings.

Parents must clearly articulate that having a cell phone is a privilege, and that if the child does not follow the rules or if their grades or chores suffer, their cell phone privilege may be revoked. Parents should also consider and convey the consequences if the child loses or breaks their phone.

Can your child follow proper etiquette?

Parents should also educate their children on appropriate cell phone behavior. Even tweens need to understand cell phone etiquette in order to save themselves from potentially embarrassing situations. Instruct your child on the basics, such as turning the phone to vibrate, excusing himself from others in order to carry on a phone conversation, and turning the phone off when in public settings. Incidentally, it’s also important that your child understands that it’s rude to take embarrassing pictures of his friends with his phone, or to use the phone to gossip about others, and otherwise behave badly.

Are cell phones safe?

There are two major concerns when it comes to the safety of cellphones: (1) some people are worried about the electromagnetic radiation that phones emit, and (2) children can get themselves in a lot of trouble by using the phone inappropriately.

First, researchers continue to look into the potential harmful drawbacks of cell phone usage, and the jury is still out. If this is a worry for you, encourage your child to only use the cell phone when absolutely necessary, or if that doesn’t seem feasible, consider purchasing headsets for tweens or teens who spend a lot of time on their phones.

Second, many children use their cellphones inappropriately. The added features that smartphones offer can lead to accessing inappropriate material on the Internet, cyberbullying, “sexting” (sending sexually explicit texts or photos), cheating in class, distracted driving for older teens, and taking inappropriate pictures. Although parents can’t entirely control their kids’ cellular communication, many wireless companies offer a menu of filtering and restricting options. Again, purchasing a phone with less features will eliminate this concern.

Finally, it’s important to remember that cell phones can give children and their parents a false sense of security. Children need to know that they should never put themselves in a risky situation, such as walking alone at night or catching a ride with a stranger, thinking that the cell phone will provide them with a safety net.

Final Thoughts…

Most experts advise to wait as long as possible before purchasing a phone. But as long as you establish rules and proper etiquette and factor in your child’s maturity level, there is no specific age that is right or wrong. Cell phones can be very useful to parents, but as with all things, it’s important that parents work hard to maintain communication with their child.

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One thought on “When Should Your Child Get a Cell Phone?

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