When to Buy Your Child a
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David Poger had planned to buy his daughter
Maya a cellphone when she was 15 and in high school, but last year he and
his wife caved when she was 11.
“There was a lot of nagging and pleading,” said Mr. Poger, who lives in St.
Louis, Miss. But for his wife, Stephanie, and him, he said, “Safety was a
big issue because she was walking downtown with her school friends, going to
movies and roller skating without us.” He added, “I still think she’s too
Many parents these days face the same struggle as the Pogers: at what age
should you buy your child a cellphone? And when you do buy that first phone,
what kind should it be?
About 75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States own a mobile
phone, up from 45 percent in 2004, according to an April study by the Pew
Internet and American Life Project, part of the Pew Research Center. And
children are getting their phones at earlier ages, industry experts say. The
Pew study, for example, found that 58 percent of 12-year-olds now had a
cellphone, up from 18 percent in 2004.
Parents generally say they buy their child a phone for safety reasons,
because they want to be able to reach the child anytime. Cost also matters
to parents, cellphone industry experts say; phones and family plans from
carriers are both becoming more affordable. Also, as adults swap out their
old devices for newer smartphones, it is easier to pass down a used phone.
But for children, it is all about social life and wanting to impress peers.
The Pew study found that half of 12- to 17-year-olds sent 50 text messages a
day and texted their friends more than they talked to them on the phone or
even face to face.
Experts say the social pressure to text can get acute by the sixth grade,
when most children are 11 years old. Just ask Caroline LaGumina, 11, of New
Rochelle, N.Y., who got her phone last Christmas. “I wanted to be able to
text because my friends all text each other.”
So when is the right time to buy that first phone?
There is no age that suits all children, developmental psychologists and
child safety experts say. It depends on the child’s maturity level and need
for the phone, and the ability to be responsible for the device — for
example, keeping it charged, keeping it on and not losing it. Instead of
giving in to the claim that “everyone else has one,” parents should ask why
the child needs one, how it will be used and how well the child handles
distraction and responsibility.
“You need to figure out, are your kids capable of following your rules?”
about using the phone, said Parry Aftab, executive director of the child
advocacy group Wired Safety.
Ruth Peters, a child psychologist in Clearwater, Fla., said most children
were not ready for their own phones until age 11 to 14, when they were in
middle school. Often, that is when they begin traveling alone to and from
school, or to after-school activities, and may need to call a parent to
change activities at the last minute or coordinate rides.
Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California,
Los Angeles, who specializes in children’s use of digital media, cautioned
that at younger ages, parents might miss out on what was going on with their
children because of a cellphone.
“Kids want the phone so that they can have private communication with their
peers,” she said. “You should wait as long as possible, to maintain
When choosing a phone for a child, experts say, a big consideration is
whether to buy a feature phone or a smartphone. 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, but others, like Verizon, have started to eliminate this
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
“Most parents want to give a cellphone to keep them safe, but that ignores
the great majority of uses that kids are using cellphones for,” said James
P. Steyer, the chief executive of the nonprofit group Common Sense Media,
which rates children’s media. He said that with those added features can
come addictive behavior, cyberbullying, “sexting” (sending nude photos by
text message), cheating in class and, for older teenagers, distracted
Dr. Peters suggested that parents avoid buying children younger than 13 a
phone with a camera and Internet access. “If they don’t have access to it,
it’s just cleaner,” she said.
Parents who do not want to buy a feature phone or smartphone might consider
an inexpensive prepaid phone — Nokia, LG and Samsung have models like this —
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.
If parents do choose a smartphone or feature phone, it is important to set
use restrictions on Internet, texting and calls until age 15 or 16, when
presumably the child will be more mature and also have greater autonomy.
Parents have several ways to set use restrictions. One way is to buy a plan
through the carrier. For example, for $4.99 monthly, AT&T’s Smart Limits or
Verizon’s Use Controls let parents set limits on minutes, restrict
time-of-day use and even dictate whom the child can call or text. Parents
can also request that their carrier block content or prevent a child from
Parents can also buy software from other vendors like My Mobile Watchdog
that can be loaded onto the child’s phone and will, for example, send a copy
of a child’s texts or photos to the parent’s phone.
Some phones are made specially for children and include free parental
controls, like the Firefly and the Kajeet, available online. But generally,
the major wireless retailers focus on smartphones and feature phones, saying
children’s phones have proved less popular.
Anyone with a teenager or preteenager knows that most children covet the
kinds of phones adults have. “No kid wants a dumbed-down phone,” said Julie
A. Ask, vice president at Forrester Research.
In a Verizon store in Berkeley, Calif., recently, store clerks pointed to
several feature phones that they said were attractive to teenagers — like
the $130 LG enV3 and the $150 Motorola Cliq.
Common Sense Media and CTIA, the cellphone industry trade group, both have
sites with advice on children and cellphones.
Parents might also consider cellphone alternatives like the iPod Touch,
which for $199 offers music, games and applications. Technically, it is not
a phone, but through a Wi-Fi hot spot, children can download applications
like TextFree ($5.99 or free in ad-supported version) and Skype, and then
text or call their friends free.
Mr. Poger’s daughter Maya has an LG Rumor2 with a keyboard through his
family’s Sprint plan. He asked the carrier to block downloads, and he and
his wife have talked to Maya about responsible use. Now Maya’s sister, who
is 6, wants one.
“She’s going to wait until she’s 11,” he said.
- Courtesy: www.nytimes.com