That Ringing Sound Is a Cash Register
Once upon a time, getting a driver's license was the threshold moment when kids crossed into adulthood. Today, it's getting a cellphone. And unlike driving privileges, which have a minimum age restriction, the birthday hurdle for getting a mobile phone keeps slipping lower and lower, with some simple phones targeted for use by kids as young as 6 years old. Another big difference: Giving a child his own cellphone without the proper restrictions can be nearly the same as handing him a blank check.
About 10 percent of the 23 million American kids between the ages of 8 and 12 already have cellphones, according to Robin Abrams, the CEO of Firefly, a company that is marketing a phone made specifically for preteen users with flashing lights and buttons to dial Mom or Dad with one touch. Only you can decide what's the right age to get your child a cellphone, but here are a few tips to help the decision-making process:
If you would like a link to keep your family in touch in case of emergency, there are a couple of options available. Both the TicTalk phone by Enfora ($100 plus a prepaid plan) and the Firefly phone ($90 at Target with a prepaid plan or $50 after rebate at Cingular plus a service contract) offer rigid parental controls, limiting the numbers children can call and their talk time. Parents might prefer the TicTalk because it can be programmed via a website. Kids will probably choose the Firefly for its playful lights.
Some health groups have raised concerns about kids regularly holding cellphones near their developing brains. There has been no conclusive evidence that this is hazardous. Some kid-targeted phones, such as the TicTalk, do come with built-in speakerphone capabilities.
For teenagers, a prepaid cellphone service may be easier to budget for, taking the surprise out of the monthly bill. Another option is to ask the carrier to disable the text messaging, picture mail, downloadable ring tones, and similar features, as these functions typically trigger additional charges.
This story appears in the December 12, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.