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Kids getting phones at ever earlier ages

Parents can set rules to help teens and preteens use mobile devices responsibly.

By MSN Money Partner Feb 5, 2013 12:59PM

This post comes from Michelle V. Rafter of MSN Money.


Debbie Dick didn’t get her three children cellphones until they were  old enough to drive. “They simply did not need one,” she says.


Young girl using smartphone (© Mike Harrington/Lifesize/Getty ImagesLaurie Furlong gave her  kids cellphones when they were preteens because the family had ditched a land line phone and she and her husband’s work schedules “were so crazy,” she says. “We did not want them home alone without a way to contact them.”

Mary Jo Stepps Campbell didn’t intend to get her son a phone until high school, but changed her mind after he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Instead, he got a phone at 11, entering sixth grade. “We needed the peace of mind,” she says.

Whether for safety reasons, medical issues or just because, families are giving kids phones at younger and younger ages.

Parenting experts, school administrators and wireless companies urge families to use contracts, house rules or usage controls to make sure kids use phones responsibly regardless of age. Such guidelines can counteract bad behaviors like sexting and cyberbullying that can take place on apps popular with teens and tweens including Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.


Nearly six in 10 parents with tweens bought cellphones for their young children, according to a July 2012 National Consumers League survey. The number ranges from 62% in  families with household incomes of more than $100,000 a year to 41% for families making less than $50,000 a year.

In Massachusetts, 18% to 20% of children had a cellphone by the third grade, according to a 2011 study from Bridgewater State University. The number of kids with cellphones grew to 39% by fifth grade, according to the study.

And increasingly kids are getting smartphones.

Smartphone use among teenagers is growing faster than any other segment of the population, according to Nielsen’s latest poll of the U.S. mobile market. As of July 2012, 58% of the country’s 13- to 17-year-olds who use a cellphone own a smartphone, compared with 36% the previous year, according to the poll.

A separate AT&T survey found that 34% of 8- to 17-year-olds with phones owned a smartphone.

Experts suggest giving cellphones with lots of strings attached. One parent who followed that advice to great acclaim is Janell Burley Hofmann. Over the holidays, an 18-point iPhone contract that the Cape Cod writer and community activist posted online when she gave her 13-year-old son Gregory a phone went viral, gaining more than 32,000 Facebook "likes."


In the contract, Burley Hofmann admonishes him to turn off his phone in public, answer it when it rings, look up every once in a while to enjoy the scenery, and never, ever send sexts.


"Do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else's private parts," she writes."“Don’t laugh.  Someday you will be tempted to do this despite your high intelligence.  It is risky and could ruin your teenage/college/adult life."

Here’s other advice from parenting experts and wireless providers on how families should approach giving kids phones:

1. Delay as long as possible. “We like the age of 14-ish,” Ruthie Matinko-Wald, an associate at Portland, Ore., parenting education agency Family Empowerment Network, shared in a recent school presentation in the city


2. Start with a plain vanilla feature phone. Agreeing to give your kid a phone doesn’t automatically mean you're agreeing to give them access to texting, the Internet, SnapChat et al. "Smartphones are the No. 1 risk factor for opening them up to cyberbullying, and for boys for pornography," Matinko-Wald says.

3. Have a contract. Burley Hofmann’s contract stipulated that she and her husband would always know the password to their son’s phone, would keep it at home during the school day, and would take it away if he messed up. "We will sit down and talk about it," she writes. "We will start over again.  You & I, we are always learning.  I am on your team.  We are in this together." The Family Online Safety Institute offers a sample online safety contract that can be adapted to cellphone use.

4. Set house rules. Don’t want the kids to text at the dinner table? Have a family meeting and establish ground rules for what is and isn't acceptable. Those rules could include asking your kids' friends to toss their phones in a basket or "dog pound" when they visit so they're forced to communicate sans texts. Parents need to follow the rules too.

5. Turn off phones before bed. Middle-school teachers attending Matinko-Wald’s presentation shared how they routinely overhear students talking about texting each other at midnight, or later. Sleep deprivation from taking phones to bed is becoming a huge public-health issue, Matinko-Wald says. "Get screens out of bedrooms."

6. Turn on usage and parental controls. Most wireless providers offer controls that account holders can use to limit the amount of text messages or talk time available in a month, or the times of day a child can be on their phone. They can also avoid having kids run up phone bills by limiting how many downloads, ringtones or games they can buy in a month. In addition, providers offer content Filters and service blocks to keep kids away from inappropriate websites or other online content. Verizon Wireless’ Smart Phone Parenting website offers more tips on wireless use and parent controls.


More from MSN Money


Feb 5, 2013 6:44PM
When they turn 25 and can pay for it.
Feb 5, 2013 7:44PM
I don't know how we ever survived without a cell phone before they were invented!  (Sarcasm)
Feb 6, 2013 8:53AM
Very stupid parents. My wife teaches in a poor district with lots of families on welfare or illegal. The kids get free lunches we pay for and they complain they can't afford to buy school supplies, but they all have phones. All the adults and all of the children. And they are not cheap phones. Your tax money well spent.
Feb 5, 2013 7:55PM
they can have mine.  I'm tired of people calling and bothering me all the time.....   I'll be home at 5:30.   Talk to me then.
Feb 5, 2013 7:23PM

Obviously it depends on the maturity level of the child, but for normal children 13-14 is a good age for their first phone.  The first phone should be bare only, no camera, texting or internet capability; and it should be a pay as you go plan where the parents should have total control over how much money is put into it.  Once the kid proves himself mature enough to use the phone responsibly, then maybe at 15-16 you can upgrade to texting/internet and a monthly plan with a fixed amount and a larger number of minutes.  No kid under 18 should have a camera phone...there's too much peer pressure to use it inappropriately.

Feb 5, 2013 7:20PM

A long time ago I read about a woman who got her middle-schooler a cell phone- with 15 minutes of talk time a month. The cell phone wasn't to be used to gab with her friends. It was for stuff like, "Practice was cancelled, you need to come get me."  If her daughter went over 15 minutes, the additional charges would come out of her allowance. I loved it.


I hate it when kids act as if parents are required to provide them with cell phones.  I hate that commercial where the father tells the teens that he signed them up for a new plan that will let them text "as much as they want".  "We do that already.", one of the kids replies.  "Yes, but now mom can quit her second job.", says dad.  Mom walks in wearing her work clothes, which is a giant taco costume.  There's another one where the teen girls are being super sarcastic and "talking to their friends" into their hands because they don't have cell phones.

Feb 5, 2013 7:52PM

Back in the days before cell phones, it wasn't uncommon for parents to set up a separate phone line for their teens to use.  The ones I knew who did that, did it only when the teen was old enough to have a part-time job, and the kid was expected to pay the bill himself.  A similar guideline should be followed with cell phones.  If the kid's too young to work, he's got no business having his own cell phone, unless he's got a medical problem.

Feb 5, 2013 7:23PM
My kids got theirs when they was 18. I kept an extra phone they could use temporarily when they was going out so we could know when to pick them up from a function. I seen my daughter pound out over 3000 texts when she had it for 2 months. This should be a major concern with parents that these are distracting most kids from their schoolwork. Its not a necessary item to survive , most people get them because of keeping up with the joneses. What 10 year old needs an I- phone give me a break
Feb 5, 2013 7:14PM

I do not like the idea of kids having phones, but I can understand the safety side of it from parents. My buddy tracks his kids location anytime he wants....

Feb 6, 2013 3:34PM
My wife is pregnant... does anyone know where I can get a Fetus Phone Unlimited Call Plan?
Feb 6, 2013 9:40AM

We are creating social zombies.  Kids should learn face-to-face social skills and social manners first.

Rude kids grow up to be rude adults. Socially inept kids grow up to be socially inept adults. Give them a cellphone if situation warrants but don't give them a Smartphone until they graduate.  I started my stepson off with a pay-as-you-go phone in high schooI.  Started him off and told him he had to keep the phone "fueled" with the minutes. He was quite the minute mizer!  Same when he went to college...gave him a Smartphone with minutes and limited text (school warning system relied on text). If he wanted data or if he exceeded text limits, he had to pay.  Never ran over on minutes, and exceeded text limits only twice.  He did not get data until he went on his own plan.

Feb 6, 2013 5:31PM
I retired from teaching in 2006 and, even then, the county-wide rules on kids and phones were being changed because of parents needing to get in touch with kids after they left school or when they were in clubs after school, etc. when the secretaries and switchboard operators were gone.  The oldest in our family's current school-age generation is 12 and he has a cell phone whose time use is carefully monitored by his mom.  Yes, adult monitoring of him when he's out of the house is always planned but, for example, if he's waiting for a ride and one of us is going to be late because of unexpected problems, etc. it's good to be able to get ahold of him and make sure he doesn't wait alone outside after dark.
Oct 24, 2013 11:16AM
I think it is ok for kids to get cellphones. It all really depends on the age of the child and the parent. Some parents love to know where their children are at, at all times. It also has to do with finding an affordable plan for your kids because you don't want to pay 100 bucks a month on a child's cellphone bill every month.
Feb 6, 2013 10:34AM
my kids will not get a cell phone until they are out of my house while they live under my roof they will learn to talk to people face to face and be sociable instead of some idiot to scared to go out cause they sends all of there time on the phone texting or Facebook or surfing the web anyone who gets their kids cellphones are stupid
Feb 5, 2013 8:48PM
Never had kids.  Never wanted any.  Never had a cell phone.  Never wanted one.  "Problem" solved.
Feb 5, 2013 8:04PM
As soon as they can carry on a meaningful conversation......
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