Jeez, I didn't have a cellphone until I was 30!
March 1, 2010 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Need some general rules of thumb about getting kids cellphones

10 1/2-year-old daughter has been begging for a cellphone over the past couple of months. Ultimately, my wife and I say no, because we don't see the need for it. She's in elementary school, has no activities that leave her in any isolated situation for any length of time, and we know it'll be a huge time (and money) drain.

We wouldn't be totally opposed to it if she had activities that kept her after school late, or...well, I don't know what else.

Would like to hear some of the "ground rules" that other parents used in making the decision about whether to get their kids a phone.
posted by teg4rvn to Human Relations (37 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Some of the folks I work with have kids who got cell phones once they were in middle school, when schedules (sports practices and stuff) started getting more complicated. The kids got plans with no texting allowed, phones are not permitted at the dinner table, and are not permitted in the kids' bedrooms when bedtime comes.

You might be interested in this recent report on kids and media use, especially the section on cell phones (page 18).

Disclaimer: I work for the place that produced this report, but I did no writing or data analysis for it.
posted by rtha at 12:59 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

"She's in elementary school, has no activities that leave her in any isolated situation for any length of time"

Yeah, you're in the right here. The guideline I use is "under what circumstances would you use such a thing?" Until very recently there were none, so I wasn't willing to pay for one.

My daughter is 12 now, and finally has access to a mobile phone, but it's chiefly because she's left at home in charge of her brother and we don't do the landline thing. If it weren't for that, I'd revoke it because I don't really get $10/month value out of it to begin with.

Most of her communication with friends is online, anyway, and she doesn't need a cell phone for that. Google Chat / Jabber totally owns the tween scene right now. Cell phones are for old people.
posted by majick at 1:02 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got cell phones for my kids when they were 13 and 14, old enough to be out-and-about without an adult for a while, so that I could contact them at any time from work. It so happened we moved at that time as well, so we ditched the house phone, and the cell phones are all we have. They are now 14 and 16, and they still have the same basic plan I have --- 300 minutes, no texting, no internet, etc. If they want more, they can pay for it. They nagged me about texting for a long time, but I don't really want them to have that kind of constant contact, especially in school, and especially since I can't track what they're texting the way I can track what they're saying on facebook or whatever.

I would not give a child a cell phone at age 10, for the same reasons you give. It's strictly as needed, and a 10-year-old doesn't need it.
posted by headnsouth at 1:10 PM on March 1, 2010

Ask her to come up with a list of the situations where she would need a cellphone. Not want, but need. If she starts throwing wants in there, then you have that discussion on the difference. When she finishes the list, depending on how many or few things are on there, have a discussion on why a cell phone is or is not a good idea. If it's a very few ideas, then explain when that list expands, that it will be a time to reconsider her getting one. If it's quite a few valid things (and you can see her justification), then it may be the time she is responsible enough for one.

And no, I'm not a person who thinks you should give your children everything they want, I'm a person who thinks that younger people aren't kids, and you should be able to dialog on some level with them to see both sides. I bought my own cell phone with my own dollars at age 19 when I went to college, cause I had that discussion with myself, after my parents had that discussion with me in HS and I came up short for good reasons.
posted by deezil at 1:18 PM on March 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

The guideline I would use is "you can get a cellphone when you can pay for it yourself." If she wants it that badly, she'll have to take on a ton of extra chores around the house, or shovel snow for the neighbors, or whatever moneymaking opportunities are available to her. In other words, don't let it be a way to waste time and money; make her spend her time earning the money to get what she wants.
posted by decathecting at 1:20 PM on March 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

And no, I'm not a person who thinks you should give your children everything they want, I'm a person who thinks that younger people aren't kids, and you should be able to dialog on some level with them to see both sides. I bought my own cell phone with my own dollars at age 19 when I went to college, cause I had that discussion with myself, after my parents had that discussion with me in HS and I came up short for good reasons.

With all due respect, 19 != 10. A 19-year old might be a "young person;" a 10-year old is a kid.
posted by jckll at 1:21 PM on March 1, 2010

With my parents, they gave us cell phones when we started driving (around 15/16). (Though I am 21 now, and I work with kids as young as 8 who have a cell phone! Things have changed dramatically, even since when I was a kid.)
posted by too bad you're not me at 1:22 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

jckll, no offense taken, but I've known some 10 year olds that worked harder and were more mature than 19 year old friends of mine (back when I was 19). It's all about perspective. Growing up on a farm will screw up all sorts of perspectives for you. All I'm saying is to see if there's a real need, and if there is, then it's possible that it's time.
posted by deezil at 1:34 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got a phone when I was 13, due to the long distance between school and home and the fact that I took public transport for 45 minutes to the nearest bus stop on that route, where my parents would pick me up and drive me 30 minutes home. So it was a need thing ("call us if the bus is late").

The advice to base the timing of her receiving a phone on the basis of when she needs one is a good idea.

You might also want to ask the other parents at school whether their kids have cell phones, because this could obviously be an impetus for wanting one (not wanting to feel left out socially, not just not wanting to have one). If this is the impetus, perhaps you could organise a pay-as-you go phone, with your daughter having to buy the credit herself (or having to complete requisite chores around the house to get money for credit), depending on how important you think it is that she remains in contact with her peers.
posted by djgh at 1:40 PM on March 1, 2010

Got my kids cell phones when they were 12. I disagree with some of the people above - we eventually opted for unlimited texting on a family plan because kids get texts from their friends even if you've told them not to text and it gets very expensive very fast. My college aged daughter texts more than she talks, high school junior is the same. I would definitely NOT get a 10 year old a phone for the reasons you cited. My kids have the cheapest free phones our provider offers. We do get insurance coverage on them because kids are hard on phones.
posted by leslies at 1:45 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Personally, I wouldn't get a 10 year old a phone unless she was going to practices or some other similar thing where she might need to call for a ride. However, if you do get her a phone, please, for the love of all things holy, either get her an unlimited text plan or use the parental control features so she cannot go over her allotted texts. I used to work for at&t cellular and you would not believe how many parents called in with kids that had sent over 2k texts (at $.25 a text) on a 50 text a month plan. At least once a week I'd get a call from a parent with a thousand dollar phone bill and as a rule the company does not allow you to adjust them, I always felt like crap, but its adjust your phone bill and lose my job, or let you be mad at your kid, so yeah. I eventually quit though, shittiest college job ever.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 1:56 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the, "When you need one," argument.

My boys are teens and the youngest just got his phone this year at Christmas (he will be 15 next month).

When you do go for a cellphone, I suggestion: opt for no texting or unlimited texting, but nothing in-between. From all of our discussions with other parents, it's the overage charges from texting too many times that nails them ever month. Our kids have a "no texting" plan, and we're good with that. Others have gone with unlimited texting and having the kids pay for the option themselves.

As majick said, it's all about gmail chat these days for the kids anyway.
posted by misha at 2:06 PM on March 1, 2010

Ack. Should be "1 suggestion" not I suggestion!
posted by misha at 2:07 PM on March 1, 2010

I'm a single parent and my commute was 1 1/2 hours each way; my daughter got a cell phone when she turned twelve. We chose a minimal plan, texting wasn't a big thing then like it is now so it wasn't an issue and she could only use her cell to call me or family. Very best advice? Get the additional replacement insurance, despite everyone's best efforts the phone will be dropped, lost, stolen or otherwise damaged at some point. The insurance will save you some grief.
posted by Allee Katze at 2:19 PM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: OP here-

I don't get it. Isn't Gmail chat when one is tethered to their desktop/laptop? What about all the kids I see texting each other at the mall? How is Gmail chat "the new texting"?
posted by teg4rvn at 2:27 PM on March 1, 2010

I agree on not getting them one unless there is a need. My middle schooler has one for her activities, but she didn't get it until she was 13. Maybe you should find out where the desire comes from? Do her friends have them? Maybe you could ask those parents.

If the need does arise, or the begging becomes overbearing (we've all been there), there is a cell phone company specifically made for children. You can get a phone that only has 4 buttons, so you can program home, mom, dad, and emergency. They offer pay as you go so the price is not too bad.
posted by I am the Walrus at 2:28 PM on March 1, 2010

Nthing having her write out a list of when she would need a cell phone.

If you do decide to get her a phone, please make sure to review her school's policies on cell phones with her. You'll have a lot less hassle if she knows this information. Reviewing general cell phone rules and etiquette would also be a great idea.
posted by wiskunde at 2:47 PM on March 1, 2010

Wow. I'm 22, and I wasn't allowed a cell phone until I was starting college 5 years ago. Even though I envied and whined and all that, my parents didn't budge, and in retrospect, there really was no need for me to get one until I started on my 1.5 hour commute and actually stay late after school for labs and other stuff. Chatting waited until I got home to my MSN and emails. And if it wasn't for the fact that my commute really is long, I don't think I would've gotten it even then!

To be fair, I didn't do much extracurriculars during high school (did nothing but study, really), and the few I did, my mom drove me there and back; I didn't even take advantage of our (pretty nice) transit system until I hit college.

OP, if your kids are the independent types and you don't charter them hither and yon, you might consider one for high school...but elementary? I say unnecessary, and I'd like to think I'm not 'outdated' like parents are. (Tongue firmly in cheek, of course.)
posted by Hakaisha at 2:51 PM on March 1, 2010

My son is 11 and we got him a cellphone and it's been useful a few times. We got him the cheapest pre-paid phone possible which limits possible losses. He's already lost his phone once but we replaced it for a whopping $20 and t-mobile even ported over his pre-paid balance. pre-paid means that he can never run up a surprise bill and now that we've passed $100 in lifetime spending on his phone number t-mobile maintains minutes for a year meaning we only need to spend $10 a year (versus $10 a quarter up to now) from here on to ensure he has enough minutes to cover his low call volume. We got this phone which is durable, stays on standby for a week on a single charge if necessary and has generally been fine (t-mobile coverage in your area may or may not be any good). The phone gets no internet services so there's no worry about inappropriate chatting, etc. He exchanges SMS with friends but so far that has not been an issue.

Overall it's for emergencies and that's generally how it gets used and it's been fine so far. It was a good way to help him learn some responsibility and for us to determine that gadget obsession can indeed be inherited genetically from the father.

In short, buy the crappiest possible phone on pre-paid.
posted by GuyZero at 3:18 PM on March 1, 2010

In my area it's near impossible to get around without a car. Therefore, kids are pretty physically tethered to their parents until they are 14, when they enter high school and may become friends with someone who has a car. Most highschoolers now have them.

I graduated from this same HS in 2004, and only a couple kids in my graduating class had cell phones, myself included. I shared one with my sister. The shoddy reception meant (and still means) that it was almost always better to use a landline, but these days unlimited texting makes it easier to communicate in rural areas with poor reception.

YMMV, of course, but here's the way I see it: a cell phone isn't a toy. Under what circumstances is a 10 year old (or 11 or 12 year old for that matter) going to use one in a way that is not for play?
posted by pintapicasso at 3:25 PM on March 1, 2010

Most highschoolers now have them.

Them, meaning cell phones (not cars).
posted by pintapicasso at 3:26 PM on March 1, 2010

We held out til our kids had afterschool activities and we wanted a way to keep in touch with them. They were so happy to finally get a cell phone, that the accepted any restriction we put on it. And we basically had a remote control leash to our kid.
At that time the restrictions included:
No Texting
Limited calling
No talking on the phone after bed time
No talking on the phone during dinner/in front of other people, in the car. (Basically, they weren't allowed to be on the phone if it took them out of engagement with the person in the room with them)

We have liberalized now, and they text pretty freely, but they still have excellent phone manners.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:47 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I got my first cell phone when I was 14 (ironically as part of a punishment for coming home late). I didn't particullarly want a cell phone (never a big chatter) but it really made sense (my daily commute involved calling my parents on a payphone to pick me up) Guidelines that were helpful (though they might not have seemed so at the time)

The cell phone charger was in a common area (and my phone batteries were awful, so it was put away every night)

My first phone had no texting, my later phones had so many texts I never went over. I'd go for either completely locked to texting or unlimited

I had a prepayed phone, and if I went over the allotted minutes, well, that was it for the month.

I'd definitely wait until she has a real need for it, or if she's constantly borrowing her friends phones.
posted by fermezporte at 4:49 PM on March 1, 2010

We don't have a landline, so we got her one at 4 (the firefly, could only call mom and dad). Since then she gets my hand-me-downs, she is 8, and has a blackberry pearl with 150 texts per month, it's an add on to our account for $10 a month where she shares out minutes.

I think since she pretty much has always had it, she couldn't care less about it. It's there if she goes to a friends and wants to call from there or to call grandparents. We have it set so there is no voicemail it just rings forever when people call.

We often have to remind her she has it and to make sure it's charged, to take it with. This seems to have worked well for us. When her friends get them at 10 or 12, she'll probably be on a iPhone 1.0 and be way bored with it and wonder why they keep texting her.
posted by thilmony at 5:16 PM on March 1, 2010

"What about all the kids I see texting each other at the mall? How is Gmail chat "the new texting"?"

Those kids are, like, 15 or 16, dude. Culturally they might as well be on the moon to pretweens and tweens. They're irrelevant.

10 1/2 year olds don't hang out at the mall. They don't mill around town on their way home from school. Maybe they're over at the library for a bit (gchat!) or at a friend's house (gchat!) or at home (gchat!) or bored and borrowing a parent's iPhone (gchat!) but the circumstances under which they need to transmit SMS are... well, I can't come up with one, so I don't have SMS enabled for my kid.

I was serious when I said Google Chat totally owns the tween IM space. Some kids used to use Skype but now that video works somewhat with the gchat flash client, that's a rare sight nowadays as well. The only thing that's anywhere near that level of popularity for tween communication is the use of their lied-about-their-age Facebook accounts -- most of the kids seem to have these as well -- for chat.
posted by majick at 5:33 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

giving them a phone when there about 14-15 is about right. The biggest thing is that you dont give them a smartphone, but if you were nice, dont give them a free one. but its up to you. your the one buying it. 50$ was my max for a new phone, and they were happy with it and i didnt have to deal with the whole "this thing sucks" sort of ordeal. Also, make your rules very clear like, "this is your phone for 2 years" or "if you break it or lose it, your paying for your next phone" also, just give them the texting. if you want to avoid the overage costs things that can happen, its not a bad idea to give them about 1000 texts or unlimited if you can afford it.

do what you think is right. if they show they have the responsibility, then they should be rewarded.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 5:35 PM on March 1, 2010

One thing to keep in mind is that, at least in my city (Montreal), pay phones are quickly disappearing. When I was 10 (... a whole 13 years ago!) I could call my parents from anywhere with a quarter; it would be much more difficult nowadays.

I got a cell phone (prepaid, I bought the phone myself for $120 and it seemed like an incredible extravagance to my parents) when I was 16 because I lived in a small town and liked going to The City on the weekends. I was allowed to take the bus into town as long as I had my cell phone with me. At 13, I had music rehearsal a few towns over and I would borrow my mom's phone when I took the bus. It came in very handy a few times when the bus was delayed and someone needed to pick me up, and when I didn't feel safe.

IMO, if you drive your kid around and always know where she is, she doesn't need one. If, OTOH, she's starting to take public transit or ride her bike further away from home, it might be a good idea.
posted by OLechat at 6:08 PM on March 1, 2010

I gave my son a cell phone at 10 when he left middle school. We've been lucky - he's never once lost it (15 now) or exceeded a limit on voice or text. For us it's been incredibly useful to reach him in circumstances from a flat on his bike 3 miles away to our running late to pick him up from a sports event. Obviously YMMV but for us the benefit far exceeded the cost.
posted by mozhet at 6:09 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mine were 13. We got them for them when WE needed to contact them, not when they needed them for any other reason. I support the texting too. Turns out that talk minutes are a waste. Texting far outweighs talk for "kids nowadays". In fact, I am constantly telling my kids to stop texting and waiting for answers and just pick up the phone and ask. I am able to text them through Google voice at any time and that has worked well.

The decision was for us when we needed to contact them.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:14 PM on March 1, 2010

I don't get it. Isn't Gmail chat when one is tethered to their desktop/laptop? What about all the kids I see texting each other at the mall? How is Gmail chat "the new texting"?

I agree with you on this. I supervise a lot of young people (elementary and middle school tutor) and haven't personally seen anything to back up this idea of gchat as the new thing. I've only seen cell phones.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's seen as really cool. But unless your kid has mostly rich friends I'm really skeptical that most young kids have access to an iPhone compared to a regular phone. wtf. Maybe when that technology is cheaper.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:25 PM on March 1, 2010

My 8-year-old cousin has a cell phone. So do her friends, I think - she was talking about how they had different models or something, and how theirs could play music and blahblah.

It's not that big a deal. Start 'em young, teach them that usage = money, and it'll be fine.
posted by Xany at 7:16 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I must be getting on in years at the ripe old age of 27, but I was recently shocked to learn about a five year old with a cell phone.

I don't mind giving kids technology early and all that, but I'm still not really clear on what an elementary school-aged child needs a cell phone for, especially if they are not absent from their parents much.

Personally, at the very least, I would not give my children a cell phone until they were old enough to work off (or directly pay for) the cost of being put on the family plan. Kids need to understand those phones cost a lot of money every month.
posted by asciident at 7:37 PM on March 1, 2010

If you do get her a phone, have a nice long chat with her about not using it during school hours. Otherwise I (her teacher) have to confiscate it for the class, sometimes after she's missed the lesson because she was furiously texting. And in my teaching experience, kids who use cellphones during the school day tend to be worse students then those who don't. Not an official study or anything--just saying is all. For the record, the only cell phone I'd get my own kid is a Firefly (as mentioned above).
posted by Go Banana at 8:50 PM on March 1, 2010

We don't have a landline, so my seven-year-old daughter has a phone. It has half a dozen numbers--mommy's, daddy's, grandparents, aunt, daycare--programmed in, and she uses it once in a while. It's a prepaid account with Boost Mobile, so we drop $10 on it every four months, the minutes roll over, and if the phone gets lost or damaged, it's not a huge deal.

Regarding what she uses the phone for: not a lot, really, but it's nice for her to have a little autonomy. If she's missing her grandma, she just calls her up. She's also just starting to make social phone calls to friends, so this is an easy way for us to sort of keep tabs on that--she can't be on the phone every night for hours at a stretch when there's only $15 of credit on it, you know?
posted by MeghanC at 9:27 PM on March 1, 2010

It's okay to say no.

If you and she can't agree on reasons why she needs a cell phone, it's reasonable to say "not yet, but in a few years." It's okay to do this just on solid parenting principles of this being a cost, a responsibility, and a level of freedom that's not appropriate yet. You can do this kindly and compassionately and non-judgmentally.

At this point, if she doesn't need it, it's basically a very expensive toy. I bet you are okay with denying her very expensive toys? Okay, don't use that argument to her, it'll sound terribly condescending, which will not help you. Also, it opens you up to JUSTIFIED SCORN when you are "playing" (i.e. not necessary communication) on your cell phone.
posted by desuetude at 12:47 AM on March 2, 2010

I'm considering iPod Touches for my kids, myself. Music player, web access (with parental restrictions possible), games, education (my son is currently learning times tables on my phone), chat/email possibilities (and their fingers are smaller!). And of course no recurring charges.

It would be more of a swiss army toolbox than a emergency communications method, basically a personal computer. It just depends what the needs are.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:27 AM on March 3, 2010

My daughter is 9 and most of her friends (shockingly, to me) already have phones.

I'm going to get her one for her 10th birthday this year, and just be really clear about rules. We have joint custody, neither of her parents have land lines, and her friends never know where to get ahold of her. It will also make it easier for me to talk to her on weeks when I don't have her.
posted by streetdreams at 12:17 PM on March 3, 2010

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