Cell Phones For Kids: Important Buying Advice

Is your child ready for a cell phone?

Put up as big a fuss as you want, sooner or later your child is going to ask for a cell phone. Not only are cell phones great for emergencies, they've also become near-essential for busy families.

So, as experts say, not all kinds of cell phones (or calling plans) are appropriate for all kinds of adolescents and teens. A lot depends on the maturity level of your child, and whether he or she can be trusted not to call friends at midnight, download hundreds of dollars' worth of ringtones, or sneak text messages during math class. Here are a few things you need to consider:

For children under 12

Companies such as Firefly and TicTalk sell phones and/or calling plans aimed exclusively at younger users. The options on these phones are drastically pared down (many don't even have usable buttons; instead, parents input a preapproved list of numbers that can be dialed with one touch). We've found mixed reviews about these phones' call quality, and the hardware (and calling plans) aren't necessarily cheaper than their adult equivalents. Kajeet is a carrier that offers calling plans designed for kids, but uses "adult" handsets, which may be a better option that your child can grow into.

Are you comfortable with multimedia extras?

If you decide to go the adult-phone route, you don't want your monthly bill overflowing with ringtone downloads and text message overage charges. Some carriers offer parental control software, which can help limit these activities; see our Parental Controls on Cell Phones article for more information.

Can you trust your child not to talk for more than an hour a day?

The research is still inconclusive about whether there's a link between heavy cell phone use and brain tumors, but studies suggest that children's brains are more susceptible in general. It's a good practice to limit your child's talk time. See our blog post on cell phone radiation studies for more information.

For children 12 to 18

If you decide to buy your teenager a fully featured, unrestricted cell phone, experts say, you need to make clear that he or she is on the hook for any added expenses -- $3 ring tones, penalties for exceeding text-message limits, or replacing the phone if it's lost or damaged. In this way, besides easing your own piece of mind about your kids' whereabouts, equipping children with cell phones can be a valuable object lesson in fiscal responsibility.

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