No doubt you’ve read the horror stories about cellphones and kids: parents getting steep charges from their kids’ massive amounts of texts. Or worse: students cheating, viewing porn, sexting, chatting with strangers, or having car accidents while texting and driving. (More U.S. teens are now killed texting while driving than drinking, according to a recent study from the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York.)
Yet the dismal findings from countless studies and the nightmarish stories on the news haven’t deterred parents from buying cellphones for kids. In fact according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of teens and technology, more than 78 percent of teens now own their own cellphone.
“We forget, at the core, cellphones are public safety tools,” says Amy Storey, a spokeswoman for the CTIA-the Wireless Association. “Most parents get it for peace of mind.” She says parents buy their children phones so they can reach them quickly. And parents feel safer knowing their children can call 911 from anywhere.
While most mobile-touting kids first get cellphones at age 12, according to a study commissioned by AT&T, Storey states there’s no “right” age for a child to get his first phone. If you’re a parent buying thinking of buying your child hist first cell phone, Storey offers these helpful tips:
1. Know what you want before you purchase. Ask yourself questions, set your own limits, and give the provider or carrier your answers. “Go to the provider and say, ‘This is what I need it for. I have an 8-year-old who just needs to hit me on speed dial. I don’t want him to have access to the Internet, and I only want him to have texts from me,’” suggests Storey. For an older child, you might choose a different phone and plan, limiting data charges for streaming of music or films, for example. Weigh decisions about conventional and smart phones and prepaid plans.
2. Talk with your child. “The number one thing we always say before a child gets a mobile device is that there’s got to be a discussion between the two parties—parents and child—about what’s appropriate. You have to say, ‘If you break this rule, here is the consequence,’” says Storey. And you have to stick to it.
3. Learn the parental control options. Do your homework and explore parental control mobile apps. These can limit times the phone can be used, monitor texts and picture messages, block certain websites, and use the GPS location tracking ability.
4. Have a good understanding of how your child will use the device. You may use yours for notes, checking your social media, or using the camera, while your child only wants to use it for texting and listening to music. Learn each app they will use and how that company uses the data your child generates.
5. Re-evaluate your decision each year. Maybe the beginning of the school year is a good time to analyze and update their technology needs. After all, what a 17-year-old needs is different from what they wanted at 12.