October 27, 2009

Do kids really need cell phones?


(Reposted from Arapahoe County Parenting Examiner)

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about her pre-teen daughter's phone habits. My friend was routinely paying upwards of $200 a month, in text message fees and unlimited airtime minutes, for her daughter's phone alone. Moreover, the phone itself (which was fancier than my own brick-like phone) ran another couple hundred dollars. Shocked, I asked, "Why in the world does a 10-year-old even need a phone? I didn't get my first phone until I was 20!" My friend replied, "You'll understand when your son becomes a teenager."

Could this be true? Is this the way of the world nowadays? I couldn't possibly imagine my shy, young son even using a phone regularly, much less needing his own monthly plan. No way. I said, "Maybe at 16 years old, we'll talk about it...but there's no way he would need one before then."

However, fast forward to the present. My son is now nine years old and has had his own phone for three months. So much for my firm, conservative stance, right? Well, not quite. Here are some reasons why a kid might need a cell phone these days.

Safety First

While the world may have always been a hard place in which to grow up, there are now conveniences to ease a parent's worries. As your child gets older, he or she will be away from you more often. It's just a fact of life. Whether it is a sleepover at a friend's house, a birthday party, sports team practice, or something as simple as using a public restroom by himself, your child will be out of your eyesight (and possibly out of earshot). Equipping your child with a cell phone can prevent a scary situation like getting lost or just sort out a mess like scheduling changes. Years ago, a kid whose practice ended early or whose parent forgot his short school day was left with no options but to wait for the parent. Now, that child can just call the parent.

3...2...1...Contact!

We want to instill a sense of independence in our children. But at the same time, we want to be there for them, right? Even if safety isn't an issue in a particular instance, it is comforting for a child to know he or she can reach a parent at any time. My son recently called me while visiting his dad (who lives an hour away). He was feeling homesick, but didn't want to hurt his father's feelings by telling him this. Instead, my son called me while his father was sleeping, just to talk. Furthermore, at times when his father's phone may not be working (as seems to often be the case), I am still able to reach him to verify arrangements. While cell phones may not be practical in every situation, they certainly come in handy with blended families.

Responsibility Test Run

Would you give your teenager a new BMW to hone their driving skills? (If you said yes, you're in the wrong article.) A child has to earn their privileges, right? Owning and using a phone is a big responsibility. Start them off with a basic, regulated plan and let them learn some lessons in restraint and accountability, before throwing a fancy, unrestricted phone their way. Otherwise you may find yourself screeching at that first phone bill you open.

Phones come in so many packages and plans, you can decide what you need specifically for your particular situation.

1. Should your child be able to talk to his or her friends? Or is the phone just to contact you?

2. Is the phone only for emergencies or for more frequent use?

3. Does your child need to have texting capabilities? How many minutes would he or she reasonably need?

4. Do you want him or her to have a camera, MP3 player, internet access, or any of the other costly features?

Based on what you decide is best, you can find an appropriate phone and plan. First, talk to your current carrier about family plans. Some companies offer a specific plan for this very purpose. Oftentimes, you can set up a phone to only allow certain incoming and outgoing calls. With such plans, you can also monitor your child's minutes and records or set a limit on usage.

However, another route you may opt for with younger children is a pay-per-minute plan. These phones can be found at grocery or department stores, like Walmart and Target. In this instance, you pay for the phone (and usually some starter minutes) for around $30. Then, you just add on minutes as you need them. This is a good plan for an emergency-only (or for infrequent use) phone.

With my own son, I gave very specific guidelines before giving him his phone. He can call me or his dad anytime he wanted. However, he needs to ask permission before calling anyone else. So far, we have not experienced any problems, though this may change as more of his friends begin getting phones of their own.

While it may seem like today's children are getting spoiled, it is not always about that. The world may or may not be more dangerous today than it was when you were a child; however, there are now many more ways to ensure your child's safety. Try not to get caught up in the notion that "what worked for me will work for my child," like I once did. Does your kid really need cell phone? Maybe, maybe not...It's up to you to decide that.

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