The world of technology creates a constant barrage of outrageous claims made by companies hoping to draw attention to themselves. That phenomenon was illustrated once again last week when an online coupon company announced that the average age of a first-time mobile phone owner in the U.S. is six years old. The claim – which is so ridiculous I won’t link to it – was laughably false on the face of it. And it was undermined by its own sub-headline, which reported “53% of American children (own) a cell phone by the time their seventh birthday arrives.”
But the announcement reminded me of the long discussions my wife and I had last summer about getting a phone for our 11-year-old daughter. Every family’s circumstances are different, of course, and I’m not presumptuous enough to suggest what “the right age” is for child to begin carrying their first phone. As someone with a little experience, though, I think there are several important factors parents should consider:
Our kid finished elementary school last year, and we opted to enroll her at a magnet school specializing in the fine arts. The school, which serves both middle and high school students, is close to our home. But almost all her friends were enrolled at our neighborhood middle school, so she couldn’t walk to school with them like she had before. And like many kids, her schedule is sometimes varied and unpredictable. So being able to communicate with her during the day is invaluable.
Many affluent parents assume their youngsters need the same kind of high-tech smartphone they carry themselves. But those smartphones are not only more expensive at the point of sale, they also require pricey data plans that may not be warranted. If your child is only going to use the phone for talk and text – which certainly may be the case if they already have a tablet – consider buying a basic “feature” phone.
Several wireless service providers specialize in selling phones and services for kids. They offer cheap basic services, and make it easy for parents to track their children’s whereabouts with GPS and set parental controls. While we looked into those offerings, we opted to take advantage of an affordable family plan by adding her to my T-Mobile account.
Even the major carriers offer some basic parental controls that enable parents to address concerns such as cyberbullying, avoiding hefty data charges and filtering content. Such controls work only when the devices are on the cellular network, though, and not when they’re connected via Wi-Fi. So some parents may want to look into software such as mobile browsers to keep their kids protected from questionable content.
We decided to let our daughter carry a low-end ($100) smartphone that runs the Android operating system. So now we’re in constant negotiations with her regarding which apps she can download and which she can’t. She uses apps like Edmodo and Google Calendar for school-related activities, and we’ve let her download some games. But while she insists that “all” her friends are on Instagram – which seems odd, considering Instagram requires its users to be at least 13 years old – we’ve avoided all social networking apps that aren’t school-related. So far.
Because most mobile phone services require monthly payments, they can be an effective way to teach children basic economics. My wife and I paid for our daughter’s phone up front, and she helps with monthly payments with her own cash and by doing chores around the house. It takes some discipline for parents to make sure their kids understand the billing and are contributing – we aren’t always as conscientious as we could be – but carrying a mobile phone can teach kids about responsibility and household finances.