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Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?

  • Matt Bell
  • 2011 15 Apr
Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?

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 Foundationhas 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 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.

For companies that offer cell phones designed specifically for kids, with various parental controls, see the recommendations on my links page.

What About You?

As my wife 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, since that’s when they’ll be involved in more after school activities – 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?

Matt Bell is the author of three personal finance books published by NavPress, including the brand new "Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples."  He teaches a wide variety of workshops, including MoneySmart Marriage, at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  To learn more about his work and subscribe to his blog, go to: