Kids & Cell Phones: How to Decide What They Need

Kid's who don't have cell phones are quickly becoming the minority.
Kid's who don't have cell phones are quickly becoming the minority.
©iStockphoto.com/Blue_Cutler

You may be waiting as long as possible to get your kid a cell phone for a variety of reasons. Some parents' worries include kids using their phones for bullying, cheating on tests and sending sexual photos and messages. Others worry about a potential link between cell phone usage and brain cancer, although the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contend there's not enough evidence to make this claim.

Despite these concerns, kids who don't have cell phones are quickly becoming the minority. Today, about 75 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 have a cell phone, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. In 2004, less than half in that age group did.

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If you're finally ready to break down and get your child a phone, you'll of course want to start out with a little lesson in cell phone etiquette and lay down some ground rules, including who he or she can call and when. But choosing just the right cell phone and cell phone plan for your kid -- out of the myriad options available -- can also help you enforce those boundaries and keep your child safe. Read on to find out how to do that.

Cell Phone Plans for Kids

There are three basic types of cell phone plans. First is the prepaid plan, where there's no long-term contract, and you simply purchase the number of minutes or messages you want. Generally, such plans cover one phone. The advantage to a prepaid plan is that you control how many minutes your child can talk each month, and how many text messages he or she can receive. You're also protected from unexpected, expensive bills if your kid spends way too much time on the phone.

The other two basic plans are both contract plans; one covers a single line, while the other covers multiple people and phones (aka a family plan). Under these plans, you pay a monthly fee for a set period of time -- typically one or two years -- and receive a certain number of minutes and/or messages each month. If your plan covers one line, that line gets to use all of those minutes and messages. If you purchase a family plan, the minutes and messages are shared among phones. If you exceed your plan's allotted number of minutes and messages, you're billed extra -- although you can also pay to receive unlimited minutes/messages. The main benefits of contract plans are that they often include free phones, and may be cheaper overall in the long run.

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The cost for these plans varies greatly, depending on your carrier, the phones you select, the options you choose, the length of your contract, etc. It also makes a difference if, say, your cell phone is bundled in with other household services like cable television and Internet. However, in general, if you have several phones, a family plan is the most cost-effective.

If your child is new to cell phones, or you've got one on the irresponsible side, most family plans allow you control the number of minutes, messages and downloads allowed per line, which means no unwelcome surprises when the bill comes in the mail. Other parental options include blocking certain numbers from specific phones and blocking usage at certain times of the day.

Prepaid Cell Phones for Kids

A prepaid phone can help ensure your child doesn't exceed a certain number of minutes.
A prepaid phone can help ensure your child doesn't exceed a certain number of minutes.
©iStockphoto.com/terex

While many children who are given cell phones are covered under family phone plans, prepaid phones are another option. You can purchase prepaid phones in retail stores like Walmart or Rite-Aid -- prices range from about $10 to $60 or more, depending on how fancy the phone is. Instead of signing a long-term contract to obtain service, you generally purchase a card with a set number of minutes on it, then activate the phone and minutes. Or you purchase minutes through a prepaid carrier's minute plan. In either case, when the minutes run out, your child can't talk or text anymore until you purchase additional minutes.

The advantage to this type of phone is obvious: You'll never be unpleasantly surprised with a huge phone bill because your kid decided to send 10,000 text messages one month, or talk for hours on end during another. You're also not locked into a long-term contract, in case you decide to take away your child's phone privileges. But the minutes may be more expensive than those in a long-term contract. For example, as of December 2011, purchasing 30 minutes of chat time on a T-Mobile prepaid phone could cost $10, or about 33 cents per minute. And typically, you're given a set amount of time, often 90 days, to use the minutes before they expire.

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Another type of prepaid cell phone is a disposable phone. These are generally stripped-down phones without features like cameras or Web browsers -- they simply come loaded with a set number of minutes. When the minutes are gone, you toss the phone. Some disposable phones do allow you to add more minutes if you'd like, but the process can be a bit complicated, sometimes requiring you to purchase them via mail. And since disposable phones are inexpensive (about $20), you might be better off just buying another one. Disposable phones aren't always easy to find, however, and you may be limited to purchasing them online.

Child-friendly Cell Phones

Kids are kids, and you need to think a little before simply handing your youngster his or her first cell phone. What if he or she promptly loses it at soccer practice, or starts receiving nasty messages from a bully? Or maybe, if the phone in question is a smartphone, surfing the Web for hours at a time will become a favorite activity.

Some cell phone carriers and manufacturers sell phones specifically aimed at pint-sized users. These phones are often brightly colored, with larger, easy-to-use buttons. Most also come with several special features to protect kids and ease them into the world of cell phone usage. For example, phones can be programmed to send and receive calls only to and from certain numbers, or to track where your child is via GPS.

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Besides such special safety features, child-friendly phones may also come equipped with things like educational games. And to protect your pocketbook, some also come with a set number of minutes, no texting capability and no capacity to access the Internet.

If you take a little time to consider these various cell phone options (prepaid, disposable, made-for-kids, family plan vs. individual), then talk with your child about responsible cell phone usage, you should feel pretty confident when you finally place the phone in his or her hot little hand.

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