Phone for a 9 year old
October 5, 2013 5:16 AM   Subscribe

Looking to get a phone for our 9-year-old son for use in case of emergency. Several factors precipitated the decision, but most recently, he was left sitting alone outside school for an hour waiting to be picked up early.

I'm generally skeptical of giving young kids phones, but my son does have some (minor) special needs--he has severe food allergies, a heart condition, and some neurological issues the cause some mild motor skills deficits and visual-spatial difficulties that cause him to get lost easily. We'd like for him to be able to contact us if he needs to.

The most recent incident happened when he misunderstood that we were going to check him out of school early. He told his teacher that we were checking him out. She didn't know anything about it, so sent him to the office (by himself) to call while the class went to the gym for a pep rally. The secretary called his mom, but didn't get an answer (and didn't leave a message) and told him that she must be on the way. He then went and sat out behind the school and waited, where I found him an hour later when I came to pick him up at the usual time. Had his mom picked him up early, they wouldn't have been able to find him because he wasn't in the office (where she would have looked for him) or with his class at the pep rally (where he should have been). All of which is a long way to say, we're not really looking for advice on whether to get a phone.

It looks like the Firefly phone probably does what we need--there don't seem to be many phones in the US market any more that aren't smartphones. Are there other options?

Second, we're on T-Mobile--should we add his phone to our account, or just get a prepaid SIM card for his line?
posted by fogovonslack to Technology (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it seems there are other options, here are some of them.
posted by Too-Ticky at 5:50 AM on October 5, 2013

If you can trust him to really only use it in emergencies, I'd go to your local discount store and buy a $30 burner cell phone with 100 prepaid minutes. Get one that allows you to program in a couple of numbers for you and mom, home, work, and cell. That should last you basically forever, assuming he only uses it a minute or so at a time to call you in real emergencies.

Also, I think you need to find out from the school how a 9-year-old was able to walk out of school and disappear to a place where no adults could find him, and find out what they're going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again. Especially since your son has special needs, it's their responsibility to properly supervise him, and they need to have policies in place that make sure kids can't simply walk out of the building in the middle of the day.
posted by decathecting at 7:53 AM on October 5, 2013 [24 favorites]

Hey, totally understand your reasons for wanting a cellphone and I am not going to try to talk you out of them, don't worry! I did just want to give you a heads-up that a lot of schools here do not allow kids to use cellphones during school hours--even for calling parents!-- and they can be suspended if they do. So once you get that phone, make sure your son knows the school rules!

If they have them, because...

Kids your son's age are usually not just sent off alone anywhere without documentation and/or parental permission like that in elementary school, either! I'd be concerned how lax the school was here. Not because I think your son was in danger (though as a parent I'd be annoyed that my child was waiting and alone for an hour), but because every school has procedures to follow for checking-in and checking-out, and although it can be a pain, those procedures are necessary for accountability. For instance, some kids have parents who are not allowed to pick them up due to custody issues, so the school has lists they check with IDs to make sure only authorized people are signing kids out.

But the front office at your school seems like they are just winging it, and that's a recipe for disaster. I would be surprised to learn you are the first parent with an issue, and if somebody doesn't speak up, you won't be the last, either! So even though you are getting that cellphone, please do talk to the Principal about this situation, too.

As far as the cellphone goes, there are any number of pay-as-you-go options, but since you mention the Firefly, look out for hidden costs and how the plan works! I used to do reviews on my blog, and the Firefly was notorious for this. What happens with that one is you are given 90 days from the phone's activation to use your minutes, and then if you don't you have to buy new minutes before the time is up or get a new SIM card to re activate the phone. So you pay for those minutes even if your son doesn't use them, and then when he does need minutes they may have already expired. You may be able to get an unlocked Firefly, though. Check out the Amazon reviews to see if that is a better option for you.
posted by misha at 8:27 AM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I got my son a phone at the same age for similar reasons. We initially tried pay as you go/burner phones marketed for general use, however, the phone numbers associated with those accounts seem to undergo quite a bit of turnover and my son's phone would receive dozens of calls day and night from people seeking the previous owners of the phone number. This was not an optimal situation for a kid who had a difficult time understanding the concept of "right number, wrong person." This same concept was even more difficult for the many random adults calling his phone to understand and Chewie, if you are out there, no my son still does not have any chronic to sell, man.

So, look at phones or services that allow you to block all incoming calls except for those whitelisted on the phone's contact list.

Ultimately, I ended up giving my son my phone & long-held number (because I knew who had my number and was able to inform them all of the change) but had I not done that I think I would have gone with Kajeet.
posted by jamaro at 10:32 AM on October 5, 2013

I would get an old school LG Rumor off of Craigslist or Kijiji and get it set up with a pay as you go plan. Or post on FB and see if your friends have held on to their old phones.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The cell phone companies only really market the latest and greatest, but they still sell plenty of regular "dumb" phones (they refer to them as "feature" phones). Many of them are just fine. Honestly sometimes when I am fussing with my iPhone, I really miss being able to flip open a regular cell phone and push actual buttons!
posted by radioamy at 11:41 AM on October 5, 2013

there is also John's Phone, which is marketed as being very simple (it doesn't even have a screen, really) but you may want to read reviews of it first (a few I'd read when it came out said it was actually kinda finicky to use).

also: a GSM burner-type cell phone ought to work on T-Mobile (though you may have to verify with them that it will - GSM works on several different bands and some phones don't support some of the bands T-Mo uses). you should be able to buy one like that, discard the SIM card, and get T-Mobile to add it to your account as another line. that would avoid the problem jamaro had, though you've got to do some additional work to make sure the phone will work on T-Mobile.
posted by mrg at 11:49 AM on October 5, 2013

I got my 85 yr old grandmother a pay as you go flip phone from Verizon (at Best Buy). They had a plan where you pay something like 2 dollars a day ONLY on the days the phone was used. If you used it that day then you had unlimited minutes. I have it connected to my credit card so that when the balance drops below $5 it automatically adds another $5 to her account. She doesn't have to think about it (nor should she) and I don't know if I've been charged and extra $5 more than once.

It's not a well advertised plan....I happened to see the phone with the plan description on the box, and Besy Buy had a catalog of all of their plans with more info inside. So that could be an option if he wasn't going to use it every day.
posted by MultiFaceted at 11:58 AM on October 5, 2013

Pay as you go has the advantage that there is no way to exceed your budget. And there are many ways to run up hundreds of dollars of extra billing charges on a plan phone. Especially for a child who might misplace it and not notice for a few days.
posted by Mitheral at 2:07 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Not phone advice, but if he gets lost easily: if you haven't already, teach him about street signs. That way, if he needs you to come get him, he can tell you exactly *where* to find him, plus it might make him a little more reassured/a little less scared to be able to say "I'm at x and y streets" or "I'm on x street in front of y store".
posted by easily confused at 3:11 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies. Don't worry, I've had words with the school (it's a new school, and believe it or not, better than last year).
posted by fogovonslack at 6:05 PM on October 5, 2013

Best answer: It's worth noting that if you're on T-Mobile's Simple Choice plan, you can add lines quite cheaply--the first one is, I believe, $30, and after that they're $10. After taxes, three lines is about $110 a month. The plan's unlimited minutes, texts, and data, so I was pretty comfortable handing my kid a phone on it, knowing that, at least, I wasn't going to get socked with overages.
posted by MeghanC at 12:13 AM on October 6, 2013

I can't think of anything that would end up being better for your needs than something like a $15 Nokia 100 and $10 worth of PAYG credit from a budget MVNO (should last about a year).
posted by turkeyphant at 5:46 PM on October 7, 2013

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