Kid on Cell Phone

When Should You Let Your Kids Get a Cell Phone?

Monday, April 4th, 2011

It’s true what people say – kids grow up really fast. One minute they’re taking their first steps, the next minute they’re asking for a cell phone.

The decision of when to allow a child to get a cell phone comes with financial ramifications and more.  We haven’t had to make this decision yet, as our oldest child is only seven.  However, judging by the stats, we should probably start preparing ourselves for the request.

How Many Kids Have Cell Phones?

According to the Pew Research Center, 75% of kids 12-17 have a cell phone.  The Kaiser Family Foundation has even more detailed info, reporting that 31% of 8-10 year olds own a cell phone, 69% of 11-14 year olds, and 85% of 15-18 year olds.

What’s the Best Age for a Cell Phone?

It didn’t take very much research to discover that this is a somewhat contentious issue.  Parents who let their kids get a cell phone at the young end of the age spectrum can easily feel judged by those who say it’s best to wait. So, how do you decide?

Two factors seem to stand out.

When we need a way to get in touch. When kids get involved in more after-school activities, that may mean it’s time for a cell phone.

When they demonstrate responsibility. Cell phones can be expensive, so kids should have a proven track record of taking care of and not losing their things before being allowed to have a cell phone.

Who Should Own and Pay for a Child’s Cell Phone?

I believe a child should pay a portion of the cost, but not all, at least not at first.  Since there are benefits to parents when their children have a cell phone, it makes sense for parents to pay a portion as well.  Plus, especially if you are allowing a child younger than high school age to have a cell phone, they probably don’t earn much money.

Parent Steven Nash was quoted in a Kiplinger.com article, describing the arrangement he and his wife worked out with their 12-year-old daughter.  They purchased a phone and drew up their own contract:

“The phone is a spare family phone, and not my daughter’s property. The texting option is disabled. If she wants to use the phone, she has to lease it (out of her allowance) for $4 per month. If she goes over a set amount of minutes per month, she owes me 25 cents for each. If the phone is lost, stolen or broken, that is it (she had the option to pay for insurance but declined). Her mother and I retain the option to retrieve and analyze the phone at any time.”

Nash’s daughter happily signed the contract.

Dave Briggs, author of the highly regarded DVD-based course, Raising Financially Freed-Up Kids, agrees with the idea of the parents maintaining ownership of the phone: “They have to use it wisely enough to prove they deserve to use “mom and dad’s cell phone.”

What Restrictions Should Be In Place?

Today’s cell phones can do much more than make and receive phone calls.  So, which features should a parent allow?

Texting. Nearly 90 percent of teen cell phone users send text messages; one in three sends more than 100 text messages a day.  Girls are more frequent users of all cell phone features than boys.

Just 14 percent of 7th to 12th graders say their parents restrict the number of texts they can send.

Three-fourths of teen cell phone users have phone plans with unlimited texting. They send and receive an average of 70 messages a day, whereas teens with limited plans send and receive an average of 10 a day.

Teens of parents who restrict their use of texting are less likely to report regretting a text they sent, sending sexually suggestive images, or being passengers in cars where the driver texted behind the wheel.

Given all of the above, I would opt to restrict the amount of texting our kids could do.

Internet Access.  I can’t think of any reason to give a child access to the Internet via a cell phone.  It’s an unnecessary expense.  Plus, with Kaiser Family Foundation research showing that kids are consuming a whopping seven and a half hours of media a day, they clearly don’t need another media portal.   Kaiser also noted that kids who are heavy consumers of media earn poorer grades than those who are light users of media.

What Type of Phone Should You Get for Your Kids?

Of course, some kids will want an iPhone or whatever else is popular, but this is a good opportunity to teach delayed gratification.  They can get the phone they really want when they’re on their own.  For now, a kid’s cell phone should be primarily about being able to get in touch with their parents and vice versa.

Some companies that offer cell phones designed specifically for kids, with various parental controls, include Firefly Mobile and Kajeet.

What About You?

As Jude and I talked about this, we decided that we will probably allow our kids to have a cell phone when they hit junior high school – at least, that’s our thinking right now.

I’d love to hear from parents who have actually made these decisions.  What’s the right age and why?  Who should pay?  What restrictions are warranted?  And what phones and service providers do you recommend?

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Categories: Smart Spending, Teaching Kids

7 Responses to “When Should You Let Your Kids Get a Cell Phone?”

  1. Guy Bond says:

    This is one of those areas that technology advances so quickly that you can’t answer the question until you are presented with it.

    For us, giving our kids cell phones was for our benefit and convenience, not theirs. When they could pay for it themselves, we gave them more imput into the decision of what phone and how much usage.

    I see no need for a minor to have texting or data for many reasons, one of which is that they need to learn the art of conversation. A simple phone is plenty.

  2. Matt Bell says:

    Guy – Thanks for sharing your experience. It sounds like solid advice. And I especially appreciate your point about learning the art of conversation.

  3. K Taylor says:

    Sharing the responsibility is a must. Establishing it as a privilege is as well. These are all important and I appreciate their consideration in your blog. Some important parameters to consider as well: Establish the expectation that ALL calls from parents (and maybe other specific adults) are answered or responded to promptly – especially if the phone is considered a means to help both the child and parents with communication. Set limits on when the phone can be used and make sure to track this (ex. not after 9 or 10 pm or before 8 am). Decide ahead of time whether the phone can be taken to school or not – schools have phone access if needed. Cell phones are not a necessity in that environment but can quickly become a distraction. Last – junior high age is a bit young in my eyes. These days junior high age kids are exposed to MANY things such as drugs, bullying and sexual awareness far more than just a few years ago. Phones can be used for good and bad and many kids do not have the maturity to limit their use of this new tool in a protective manner at this age (i.e. they share their number with most anyone). Also, sometimes they can consider avoiding involving an adult because they feel they have a means to deal with issues on their own now. My children did fine without a cell phone until they were in high school and they were able to show a very responsive and discerning attitude with minimal issues from the start. I agree each child must be considered individually but if you are setting a precedent for your family – waiting a few years may be beneficial overall.

  4. Matt Bell says:

    K – I like these added suggestions, including the challenge to rethink whether junior high is the right time for a cell phone. The trend is certainly younger and younger — I just saw a report today that one in five kids in kindergarten through 2nd grade now have cell phones — but that doesn’t mean we need to be pulled along by the trend.

  5. elmo says:

    this is very funny i have a cell phone and i am only 7

  6. Kathy B says:

    My husband and I have three children all 2 years apart. We decided that when the child graduates from 8th grade they can have a cell phone. Factors that went into our decision were 1) Means of contact and safety.(They went from a very small Catholic grade school to o very large public High School. 2) There are no longer public phones on the street or at office buildings or schools. It is easier to get kids from school after sporting events etc. 3) When my oldest is now driving to different cities to visit long distance friends, again it is a safety and peace of mind issue.
    The kids know it is not their phone. Having a cell phone is a privilege not a right. We can confiscate the phone at any time if they abuse the privilege.
    I have noticed that the kids text late into the night since I can’t hear them talking on the phone. It has started to become an issue because the kids don’t get enough sleep. My husband and I are working out a plan to battle this issue. It may come to us having a cell phone dock where everyone has to put their phones on the kitchen counter to charge overnight.

    • Matt Bell says:

      Kathy – Thanks for sharing your experience. As for the texting issue, I like the idea of docking the phones for the night. I also think it’s a good idea to review the texts your kids have been sending and receiving from time to time. As you said, the phones are not theirs, and knowing you’ll be checking what’s getting texted can stop some problems before they begin.

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