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The Great Debate

Cell Phone

What's the right age for kids to get a cell phone?

Once your kids are old enough to get around by themselves -- taking the bus, walking home from school, going to friends' houses -- having a cell phone makes sense. Younger kids may clamor for one, but these are expensive devices, not toys, and they require some maturity and a sense of responsibility to ensure they don't get dropped from out of a backpack, put through the rinse cycle in the washing machine (we know, we've been there) or become the instrument of inappropriate text messages or images. Before you get your kids a phone, check out our Cell Phone Contract.

Cell phones have become a must-have for kids, and the ways kids use them are not always obvious to parents. If you answer "yes" to most of the following questions, it may be time to get a cell phone for your children.

  • Are your kids pretty independent?
  • Do your children need to be in touch for safety reasons?
  • Would having easy access to friends benefit them for social reasons?
  • Do you think they'll use a cell phone responsibly - for example, not texting during class or disturbing others with their phone conversations?
  • Can they adhere to limits you set for minutes talked and apps downloaded?
  • Will they use the text, photo, and video functions responsibly and not to embarrass or harass others?

Parent tips for elementary school kids:

  • Ask yourself: Do they really need a phone? If you decide that they do, ask yourself what kind of phone they need. For very young children, there are phones that you can program with just a few important phone numbers. For older elementary school kids, you might want to choose a phone that allows for calls but not texting or instant messaging (IM).
  • Make sure young kids understand the rules. If your kids have phones, make sure you have programmed everyone's numbers into the phones so that the phones display the names of who is calling. Tell your kids not to answer calls from numbers they don't know. Make rules for time spent talking, what phones are used for, and when the phones should be off. You may want to check the time of calls to make sure they are made within your established boundaries.

Parent tips for pre-teens:

  • Make sure you have the right plan for calls or texts. Phone plans range in minutes and texts allowed. If you allow your preteens to text, get a plan with unlimited texting or you'll face huge bills.
  • Explain that cell phone are expensive and that "extras" cost money. You may be billed for ring tones, sports updates, or Web access.
  • Work out guidelines for use with your kids. No phones in class, phones turned off at night, and no phones at the dinner table are a few common ones.
  • Make sure your kids are using phones appropriately. That means no rude or sexy texts, no embarrassing photos or videos. Monitoring messages sent and received is not a terrible idea (although your children will probably think it is).
  • Talk about Cyber-bullying. Tell your kids to come to you if anything like that happens.
  • Tell your children that sexual talk of any kind is not allowed. Kids often jokingly use sexual language and sexually aggressive speech. Yet, on a cell phone, a message can be instantly forwarded out of context to anyone, and kids can get into all kinds of trouble.
  • Establish real consequences for violations of your rules. Like taking away the phones for a week!

Parent tips for teens

  • No texting or talking while driving. Never. Distracted driving is how kids get into traffic accidents - the #1 killer of teens. It's also illegal in a growing number of states.
  • Make sure they pick up your call. Many teens treat incoming calls from Mom and Dad as a nuisance. As long as you are paying the bills, make a rule: They have to answer when you call - unless they're behind the wheel.
  • Have them review each month's bill. Let them see precisely how many minutes they are spending on the phone or texting.
  • Make sure you anticipate increased phone use. By the time your children get to high school, the phone is ringing all the time. Make sure their phone plan allows for this extra time, and establish limits so they get a break from being "always on."
  • Draw boundaries. No phones at the dinner table. In the car. In a restaurant. Remind your teens that they have only a couple of years left at home to have annoying conversations with you face to face!

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