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Are Your Kids Ready for a Cell Phone?

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If your preteen child hasn't hit you up yet for a cell phone, you're among a rare breed indeed. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that roughly 70 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds now use cell phones. My focus group of one reaffirms these findings: Our 10-year-old has been hounding my wife and me for months to get his own phone.

Initially, my gut reaction was, "no way." But as I've looked closer at the idea, I can see why many parents eventually give in. Here are a few pros and cons for giving your preteen a phone, and some of the safeguards you can take:

Safety. Anyone who's ever had a flat tire or gotten lost can attest to the safety advantages of carrying a cell phone. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey found that 98 percent of parents of cell-owning teens said a major reason their child has a phone is so they can be in touch no matter where the teen is.

The flip side is that unless you install parental controls on the phone, your child could access inappropriate web and music content, or be more vulnerable to bullying and predatory behavior.

Some emergency agencies encourage cell phone users to put "ICE" (in case of emergency) in front of names of people in cell phone directories whom emergency personal should call in an emergency.

Expense. Cell phone use, including calls, text messaging, web browsing and application downloads, can be wildly expensive, as anyone who's ever accidentally incurred roaming charges or gone over their monthly minute allocation knows. You have a couple of cost-saving options:

Prepaid plan, where you buy minutes on a pay-as-you-go basis. Once your kid uses up that allotment, you "reload" the phone. Plan features vary widely in terms of daily access fees, per-minute calling rates and text message send and receive rates, so do the math carefully.
  • Advantages: No locked-in service contract; you know exactly how many minutes they're using.
  • Disadvantages: Parental controls usually don't apply; phones may be more expensive than under a service contract plan.
Family plan. It may be cheaper in the long run to add your child's phone to your calling plan. Features and costs vary widely among plans, but generally for a few dollars more a month you can add additional lines and bundle calls/texts in various configurations. Some plans allow unlimited calls/texts between a certain number of friends and family members or those using the same carrier.
  • Advantages: May be cheaper if your kids make lots of calls/texts; most allow parental controls over web content, hours used, blocking calls, etc.
  • Disadvantages: Parental controls often cost extra; some plans don't allow usage caps, so undisciplined kids may rack up large bills; tied to service contract.
Parental controls. One of the best ways to protect your kids while using their cell phones is to subscribe to your carrier's parental controls plan. Plan features vary widely among carriers, but look for these when comparison shopping:
  • Cost (ranging from free to $4.99 a month).
  • Cap the number of phone minutes and text messages.
  • Allow emergency calls, even if over monthly usage allowance.
  • Cap and/or block entertainment downloads (costly or inappropriate ringtones, music, video, etc.) May not work with certain smartphones.
  • Block mature content websites from Internet-enabled phones.
  • Restrict time of day phone can be used (e.g., block usage during school hours or after bedtime).
  • Block calls/texts from specific or unknown numbers (helps prevent stalking, bullying and inappropriate contact).
  • Restrict camera use.
  • Track your child's physical location (requires GPS-enabled phone and typically costs $5 to $10 a month)

Parental control programs generally are not available with prepaid plans. And, since no filtering tool is completely foolproof, it's important to regularly discuss cell phone and Internet safety issues with your kids. Make sure they're comfortable coming to you with any questions or details of inappropriate contact they've received.

Lay down the law. Not every child is ready for the responsibilities that come with owning a cell phone. Make sure you set ground rules and be prepared to withhold privileges if they cross boundaries, such as not abiding by school regulations, exceeding curfews or usage limits you set, using it to bully or annoy others, repeatedly losing or damaging the phone, etc. And make sure they kick in part of their allowance to help pay -- don't be afraid to share the bill so they see how expensive cell phones are.

With my son, it's not a question of "if" but rather, "when." And when the time is right, the cost of the handset as well as the added cost for adding a line to our family plan will be his to bear. This of course will allow him to hound me remotely for the latest must-have item.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

To Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

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