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When to Buy Your Child a Cellphone

David Poger had planned to buy his daughter Maya a cellphone when she was 15 and in high school, but last year he and his wife caved when she was 11.

Teen using cellphone.
Stock4B | Getty Images
Teen using cellphone.

“There was a lot of nagging and pleading,” said Mr. Poger, who lives in St. Louis, Miss. But for his wife, Stephanie, and him, he said, “Safety was a big issue because she was walking downtown with her school friends, going to movies and roller skating without us.” He added, “I still think she’s too young.”

Many parents these days face the same struggle as the Pogers: at what age should you buy your child a cellphone? And when you do buy that first phone, what kind should it be?

About 75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States own a mobile phone, up from 45 percent in 2004, according to an April study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, part of the Pew Research Center. And children are getting their phones at earlier ages, industry experts say. The Pew study, for example, found that 58 percent of 12-year-olds now had a cellphone, up from 18 percent in 2004.

Parents generally say they buy their child a phone for safety reasons, because they want to be able to reach the child anytime. Cost also matters to parents, cellphone industry experts say; phones and family plans from carriers are both becoming more affordable. Also, as adults swap out their old devices for newer smartphones, it is easier to pass down a used phone.

But for children, it is all about social life and wanting to impress peers. The Pew study found that half of 12- to 17-year-olds sent 50 text messages a day and texted their friends more than they talked to them on the phone or even face to face.

Experts say the social pressure to text can get acute by the sixth grade, when most children are 11 years old. Just ask Caroline LaGumina, 11, of New Rochelle, N.Y., who got her phone last Christmas. “I wanted to be able to text because my friends all text each other.”

So when is the right time to buy that first phone?

There is no age that suits all children, developmental psychologists and child safety experts say. It depends on the child’s maturity level and need for the phone, and the ability to be responsible for the device — for example, keeping it charged, keeping it on and not losing it. Instead of giving in to the claim that “everyone else has one,” parents should ask why the child needs one, how it will be used and how well the child handles distraction and responsibility.

“You need to figure out, are your kids capable of following your rules?” about using the phone, said Parry Aftab, executive director of the child advocacy group Wired Safety.

Ruth Peters, a child psychologist in Clearwater, Fla., said most children were not ready for their own phones until age 11 to 14, when they were in middle school. Often, that is when they begin traveling alone to and from school, or to after-school activities, and may need to call a parent to change activities at the last minute or coordinate rides.

Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in children’s use of digital media, cautioned that at younger ages, parents might miss out on what was going on with their children because of a cellphone.

“Kids want the phone so that they can have private communication with their peers,” she said. “You should wait as long as possible, to maintain parent-child communication.”

When choosing a phone for a child, experts say, a big consideration is whether to buy a feature phone or a smartphone. A feature phone generally has a camera, Web access and a slide-out qwerty keyboard, but not the operating system with the applications that can be downloaded on a smartphone. With some carriers, you can buy a feature phone and not get a data plan, but others, like Verizon, have started to eliminate this combination.

Parents should realize that buying any kind of phone with Web access essentially allows their children unsupervised access to content and tools, like social networking and videos, that they may forbid on the home computer.

“Most parents want to give a cellphone to keep them safe, but that ignores the great majority of uses that kids are using cellphones for,” said James P. Steyer, the chief executive of the nonprofit group Common Sense Media, which rates children’s media. He said that with those added features can come addictive behavior, cyberbullying, “sexting” (sending nude photos by text message), cheating in class and, for older teenagers, distracted driving.

Dr. Peters suggested that parents avoid buying children younger than 13 a phone with a camera and Internet access. “If they don’t have access to it, it’s just cleaner,” she said.

Parents who do not want to buy a feature phone or smartphone might consider an inexpensive prepaid phone — Nokia , LG and Samsung have models like this — that comes without a contract and is not part of a family plan. For as little as $10, parents can load the phone with 30 minutes of calls. The Pew study reported that 18 percent of teenagers used these plans and that teenagers who did were typically more tempered in their use.

If parents do choose a smartphone or feature phone, it is important to set use restrictions on Internet, texting and calls until age 15 or 16, when presumably the child will be more mature and also have greater autonomy.

Parents have several ways to set use restrictions. One way is to buy a plan through the carrier. For example, for $4.99 monthly, AT&T’s Smart Limits or Verizon’s Use Controls let parents set limits on minutes, restrict time-of-day use and even dictate whom the child can call or text. Parents can also request that their carrier block content or prevent a child from texting photos.

Parents can also buy software from other vendors like My Mobile Watchdog that can be loaded onto the child’s phone and will, for example, send a copy of a child’s texts or photos to the parent’s phone.

Some phones are made specially for children and include free parental controls, like the Firefly and the Kajeet, available online. But generally, the major wireless retailers focus on smartphones and feature phones, saying children’s phones have proved less popular.

Anyone with a teenager or preteenager knows that most children covet the kinds of phones adults have. “No kid wants a dumbed-down phone,” said Julie A. Ask, vice president at Forrester Research.

In a Verizon store in Berkeley, Calif., recently, store clerks pointed to several feature phones that they said were attractive to teenagers — like the $130 LG enV3 and the $150 Motorola Cliq.

Common Sense Media and CTIA, the cellphone industry trade group, both have sites with advice on children and cellphones.

Parents might also consider cellphone alternatives like the iPod Touch, which for $199 offers music, games and applications. Technically, it is not a phone, but through a Wi-Fi hot spot, children can download applications like TextFree ($5.99 or free in ad-supported version) and Skype, and then text or call their friends free.

Mr. Poger’s daughter Maya has an LG Rumor2 with a keyboard through his family’s Sprint plan. He asked the carrier to block downloads, and he and his wife have talked to Maya about responsible use. Now Maya’s sister, who is 6, wants one.

“She’s going to wait until she’s 11,” he said.

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