July 22, 2011 at 6:06 AM ET
With back-to-school buying just around the corner, smartphones cornering the teen-age market and word circulating that children may be learning to operate cellphones before they learn to tie their shoes, parents are facing an ever more complex decision:
What's the right age to give kids a cellphone?
Below, we'll ask you to share your policy, but first, here's a brief look at what some experts think.
In response to other stories we've run on msnbc.com, plenty of parents say they keep phones out of their kids' hands until they can drive or until they get to college. Perhaps. But study after study tells a different story. Here's one: Research firm IDC says seven out of 10 kids aged 10 to 14 have phones. Here's another: Pew says one out of three 12-year-olds frequently text their friends, while only one out of four frequently talk face to face.
That means the social pressure screws are turning really hard on those three in 10 families that are trying to hold out. Still, giving a kid a phone is one of those important rite-of-passage moments -- like a first date, or first solo drive -- and permission shouldn't be granted lightly. It's also usually a one-way street -- good luck prying the phone out of their hands -- so no parent should feel rushed or pushed into the decision.
What factors should go into making the choice? Don't expect the cellphone industry to help. Carriers insist they don't have an opinion. The cellphone trade industry group, CTIA, says much the same thing.
"It's such a personal decision, like when do you put the kid in their own room, or when should they go to bed. We would completely defer to the parents," said John Walls, CTIA spokesman. "But it is becoming an increasingly important decision."
In fact, parents searching for even general guidelines -- let alone a recommended age -- really won't find one. Psychologists generally echo the same vague advice.
"There can't be a single answer," said Dr. Cornelia Brunner, deputy director of the Center for Children and Technology, who holds a Ph. D. in developmental psychology. Circumstances and maturity levels vary dramatically, and parents know their kids best, she said.
Brunner has sympathy with parents trying to sort through the options.
"These things are so new in our culture that we don't know how to get a hold of (the issues) yet," she said.
There are seemingly endless factors to consider, beginning with economics. Cellphones are easily turned into limit-free credit cards by crafty wireless firms; stories of $10,000 phone bills should be enough to scare parents about that. Health concerns are scary, too. Studies about the cancer risks associated with cellphone use are inconclusive, but whatever risks may ultimately be found, children's formative brains are likely at an even higher risk.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that cellphones impact kids' social interactions with each other, and with their parents. One oft-raised concern: the digital umbilical cord. Some kids with phones call their parents every time they have even the slightest problem, robbing them of experiences that will teach them how to solve problems on their own.
Of course, the more mundane risks are of most immediate concern: Is your kid mature enough to ignore the phone while at school? Is your kid strong enough to resist the inevitable temptations a phone brings, like late-night texting that impacts their ability to learn in school the next day? Female teens send an average of 4,000 texts per month -- that's a real concern. Will your kid ever talk face-to-face with you again, or succumb to what seems to be unavoidable cellphone addiction? Will your kid use the phone to bully other kids, or will he or she be bullied? Is your kid street-smart enough to ward off approaches by sexual predators or others who might do harm?
There is plenty to fear from cellphones, but like all fears, some are well-founded and some are fantasy. While social pressure is a bad tool for guiding parents' choices, so is fear, said Brunner. A cellphone can be perfectly appropriate, even for very young children, based on circumstances. Plenty of kids in complicated life situations are safer because they have cellphones -- kids who must travel far for school, and often must wait for a parent to pick them up, for example. The Internet is crowded with stories of parents who purchased their kids cellphones after they lost track of them at an amusement park or on vacation. The tragedy the Columbine murders and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when parents and children were separated in some cases for a day or two, led to a surge of kid cell phone purchases.
"It doesn't have to be an all or nothing thing," Brunner said. "That kind of thinking is borne out of fear."
One way out of the black-and-white, cellphone-or-no-cellphone debate, is to consider limited-use phones or technology blocks. More parents should consider cellphones with training wheels. Most carriers offer relatively sophisticated tools that can clamp down on unwanted uses. AT&T's Smart Limits, for example, lets parents control the times the child's handset can send and receive texts, or prevent the phone from making calls outside a pre-set list of phone numbers.
"If you need help to set limits for your kids, why not have the technology itself help you set the kinds of limits that are appropriate?" she said. "As a parent, what you want is to help your kids have balance, and the technology can help."
Such blocks bring the same challenges as Internet blocking software, however – the tools can be hard to use, parents often don't have time to manage them, kids finds ways around them. Perhaps that's why limited-use, kid-friendly phones like Verizon's Migo and AT&T's Firefly never really got off the ground.
Perhaps the explosion of the child smart phone market will change that. It certainly should, Brunner said.
"Talking about cellphones and talking about smartphones, they are two different things," she said. "Communications devices are needed. There are some kids who need phones as early as possible, it makes them safer. But when it comes to small portable devices on which they can do everything, that's a different issue. There has to be a set of safeguards in place."
This year, cellphone sales in the U.S. crossed an important threshold, soaring from 35 percent to 55 percent, according to Nielson. Comscore says the 13- to 17-year-old smartphone market grew 45 percent in the last 12 months. That means it’s very likely the next phone a parent buys a child will be an Android, an iPhone, or some other smartphone.
That's why Brunner thinks it's time to substantially change the conversation away from the simple question, "Should I give my kids a phone, yes or no?" The real issue is: What are your kids doing with their phones?
"We have to move away from the device and to the activity," she said. "We need to talk with them about what they are doing with it and make sure we understand that. We keep thinking our kids are addicted to the device, but it's not the device, it's the things they are doing with the device."
Of course, parents can chose the shut-down route, and the data suggests three out of 10 are doing just that. Flat-out denying their kids access might be counterproductive, however. They'll be shut out of social circles, and when they ultimately get their own phones as older teen-agers, they may not have the skills to use them appropriately, Brunner said.
"Just say no works about as well in technology as it has in other areas of life," she said. "If you do that, you are making a statement that 'We are different,' and that's your prerogative. But it may ultimately not be the best choice."
It may be better to use the phones as a chance to teach kids about the world they live in, she said.
"I have no doubt (cellphones) are more dangerous than they need to be, and we should worry about that," she said. "But the point is they are here not going away, so how do we teach kids to use them in a way that is most constructive, so they feel at home in this (digital) world?"
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
Parents can familiarize themselves with various blocking tools offered by carriers by looking at this page, maintained by CTIA. More general information on appropriate cell phone use can be found here.
Individual handsets also offer blocking features. The iPhone, for example, is easily limited by clicking on settings, then "general," and then "restrictions."
Here are some other suggested strategies:
*It's important to note that children of a certain age treat everything as a toy -- they'll lose them, they'll leave them outside in the rain, they'll play catch with them. What's that certain age? Only you know, points out ParentingFamilyMoney.com
*Patch.com offers a good idea to prevent the dreaded texting all-nighters -- force the kids to charge their phones overnight in mom and dad's room.
*Finally, parents are easily seduced into the seemingly low cost of family plans and simply add their child when the time comes. Of course, we all know the phenomenon called cellphone bill creep. A limited 200-minute plan for $9.99 quickly turns into a $60 unlimited Internet, text and calling phone. Parents who simply want their kids to be safe should strongly consider pre-paid phones, which can be as cheap as $50 and come with capped, predictable costs. Now there's a limit.
What's your strategy or plan for dealing with the kid- and-cellphones question? Comment below.