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When Should My Kid Get a Cell Phone?

As the parent of both a teen and a tween, I hear this question a lot in conversations with my friends. We don't want to be too indulgent, showering our not-ready-for-primetime kids with the latest devices they want but don't need. On the other hand, we like the idea of tracking down our children when they're not with us. And frankly, we are sick of listening them beg.

But where to begin?

Let's start with some statistics. Hold on to your chair—unless you're pretty jaded, these may surprise you.

First, more than half (56 percent) of parents of tweens (defined as 8- to 12-year-olds) have purchased cell phones for their children, according to a June study by the National Consumers League.

Seventy-seven percent of teenagers own cell phones—and among high school kids, the number jumps to 87 percent, reports the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

And finally, there's smartphones. About a quarter of cell phone owners between the ages of 8 and 17 have one, according to the NCL. That number jumps to 31 percent for teens 14 to 17 years old.

Wait a minute—a phone for a 3rd grader?

"Some children are responsible enough at an earlier age not to drop or lose the phone; others are not," says Yalda Uhls, a researcher at UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center. Many parents, Uhls notes, wait until middle school, a time when their child is about to gain more independence.

Even then, though, don't let peer pressure—from your friends or theirs—be the deciding factor, says Caroline Knorr, the Parenting Editor at Common Sense Media. Instead, be honest with yourself about how much safer they will be—and you will feel—with a phone in their backpack. And then assess your child's maturity. Discuss with her the power of a rude or insensitive text. Make sure she understands how easily a cell phone photo can go viral. Go over the school's rules for cell phone use in and out of the classroom.

"If you think your children's technological savvy is greater than their ability to use [a cell phone] wisely, pay attention to the gap," Knorr says.

If you do decide to take the cellular plunge, experts advise starting your child—especially a younger one—with a basic phone.

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John Breyault, vice president of public policy for the NCL, advises skipping the family cell plan altogether and buying a phone and prepaid minutes. "That's the training wheels of cell phones," he says.

That way, if you have a kid who will text and text irrespective of plan limits and your wallet, fine. Eventually, she will hit her prepaid ceiling and have to wait until you reload the phone again. Or, there's the opposite problem—a kid like my 11-year-old who used the phone enthusiastically for the first week he got it, and now leaves it lying around the house, in odd corners, slowly draining of its charge, while we continue to pay the monthly "family plan" bill.

Should you decide to buy your child a smart phone, think twice before committing to the monthly data charge, Breyault says. If your child, particularly your teenager, wants an iPhone that badly, consider asking her to earn the money and pay the monthly fees herself.

And finally, for their own safety, set down rules about how they talk on the cell phone.

"There is strong evidence that the risk [of getting brain cancer from] using a cell phone is greater if you are under 20 years of age because the skull is not as thick, and at least in younger children the brain is not as large—so the radiation impacts more of it," says David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health & Environment at the University at Albany.

The safest way to talk, he says, is wired headphones. "The radio frequency radiation is at high levels only very near the phone," he says. Texting is also fine, he says.

Still sounds a little scary? You can always hold off longer. "We're still the parents," Knorr says. "And it's our job to say, 'No, not yet.'"

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