Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Kids and cell phones: How young is too young?

When I was a kid, we didn't have cell phones. But there were pay phones on nearly every corner, a call cost only a dime, and we always kept a little spare change in our book bags, just in case we needed to call Mom or Dad.

At home, with three teenagers, the phones really got a workout. But they weren't cordless, so in order to gab with our friends for hours, my brothers and I had to fight over the phone in the kitchen, stretching its curly cord as far as it could reach in order to have a semi-private conversation. We were thrilled when we each got an extension in our own bedrooms for our 16th birthdays -- the line was shared, yes, but we respected one another's privacy, and rarely snooped on our siblings when "the kids' phone" line rang.

Fast-forward 20 years. My oldest children each got a cell phone right around their 10th birthdays. They travel back and forth between their mom's house and ours, and it made sense to make sure they had a way to reach all of their parents, any time they needed to.

Our oldest daughter didn't really use her cell phone very much until she'd had it for a couple of years. Our second-oldest daughter likes to text, and started using her cell phone right away. Our oldest son had his cell phone confiscated by his Mom a few months after he got it; he quickly racked up a $300 bill with text-message spam and ringtone downloads. So, while 10 years old was about right for our now-teenage girls, it was too soon for our tween boy.

At's Child Caring blog, I'm discussing kids and cell phones and wondering: How young is too young for a kid to have his own phone?

Some experts say children are ready to handle a cell phone around age 10 or 11, because they are becoming more independent and starting to do things -- like go to the library, or wait for the school bus with friends -- without an adult present.

"Increasingly, kids in sixth and seventh grade have cell phones, and your child might, depending on your community, be in the minority not to have one," Diane Debrovner, health and psychology editor of Parents magazine, tells The Houston Chronicle.

Frankly, I don't think "everyone else already has one" is a good enough reason to give your child a cell phone. But if your kid flies by himself to visit his other set of parents, or has to walk home after school or sports, or spends time alone at home until you get home from work, giving him a cell phone seems like a smart precautionary measure.

I'm not saying you need to run out and buy your tween an iPhone (though there are plenty of cool, free apps out there to keep your kids occupied for a few minutes on yours). But if you're running late to pick your kids up from school, a pre-paid GoPhone is an inexpensive way to provide peace of mind -- to you and your child.

Of course, a GoPhone wouldn't have prevented our tween from receiving spam text messages from friends of friends, and probably wouldn't have stopped him from trying to download random ring tones. But my kid isn't your kid -- parents have to take their own child's maturity level and experiences into consideration. Dory Devlin at Yahoo! Tech offers a few guidelines for trying to decide whether to let your child go mobile:

1.) How and when will they use the phones? Are the phones for emergency use only or for socializing?

2.) Should they be able to send and receive text messages? To and from whom?

3.) What is the entire monthly cost, including fees, text messaging, photos, ringtone and music downloads?

4.) Will your child pay for all or part of the plan? Will the money come out of her allowance, or is she a teenager with a summer job and a small income?

Does your child have a cell phone? How old is old enough to be responsible for one?

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