When to Get Your Child Her Own Cell Phone

"Hey mom, I really need a cell phone." Have you heard words similar to these from your tween or teen who is feeling some peer pressure or the need to stay in touch with friends? Many parents worry that if they get their child a cell phone it might be overused for playing online games or texting instead of studying. Worse, that cell phone you buy your teen may become a source for cyber-bullying. How do you decide when or if you should get your child a cell phone? Here are some facts and tips to help guide you:

When to Get a Kid a Cell Phone

Many parents get cell phones for their kids during the tween and teen years, according to Scott Steinberg, author of The Modern Parent's Guide. However, some younger kids in special circumstances may also benefit from owning a cell of their own.

  • A recent study shows that only 18-20 percent of third graders have their own cell phones

  • This percentage rises to 39 percent by fifth grade, and jumps up to 83-84 percent in middle school and high school

  • Some kids may need a cell phone to reach parents quickly about unique health needs or after-school schedule changes

Peer Pressure

Why do parents give kids phones during the tween and teen years? By then, many young people presumably have greater self-control and can take on more responsibility. At the same time, many pre-teens and teenagers experience heavy pressure to own a cell phone (especially cells with all the bells and whistles) and to get the latest electronic gadgets that their friends have.

Whether or not the kids get a cell phone, it turns out that 90 percent of children in the third grade are already playing games online via laptops and other electronic devices.

Signs your Child Is Ready

Here are behaviors that show your child is ready to own a cell phone:

  • Consistently demonstrates a level of maturity (no pleading, whining or childish temper tantrums)

  • Responsibly searches (on her own) for phone plans that may offer parental controls and will fit within your family's budget

  • Agrees to use a cell only for emergencies, urgent purposes, and situations agreed in advance with you-and at appropriate times

Note: There are exceptions - as in the case of a grade-school child with health issues who may need to contact a parent quickly via cell phone. Parents can discuss this with a teacher or principal, who can serve as an intermediary between parent and child.

What Parents Should Know

Parents need to start the conversation about when to use gadgets and phones with their kids at a young age-to prevent problems of cyber-bullying, overuse of online gaming, and other issues.

Elizabeth L. Englander, who led a study at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, says that to head off problems before they begin, education on cyber-bullying and cyber-behaviors needs to begin well before middle school.

This study found that bullying (both online and physical) affected more than 20 percent of children by the time they reach third grade. The study also revealed that as children moved up through middle school and beyond, the instances of bullying increased. This supports the study's finding that nearly 90 percent of junior high and high school kids use cell phones for texting and online activities.

More Tips from Parenting Experts

Here are recommendations from researchers and high-tech parenting experts:

  • Think about getting a cell phone that offers prepaid plans and parental control options. For example, you can decide who can call or text your child's phone and what phone numbers your kid can call (with family plans through Kajeet®, T-Mobile ®, and Sprint®-to name a few).

  • Get a prepaid phone plan to keep track of calls your child makes, including details like times the calls are made and how long they last.

  • Choose a basic cell phone in lieu of a smart phone. That way, your child will not have access to the Internet via the cell phone, which will lessen the chances for experiencing (or perpetrating) cyber-bullying.

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