YOU Magazine - September 2008 - Cell Phones for Children Deciding Whether It's Right for Your Family
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Lyn Bankowski     Lyn Bankowski
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Cell Phones for Children
Deciding Whether It's Right for Your Family

Cell Phones for Children - Deciding Whether It's Right for Your Family

School is now in session. For many families that means driving children to and from class, extra-curricular activities, and friends' houses. Of course for some families, it also means it's time to resurrect the discussion about whether or not to purchase a cell phone for their child.

If your child is asking for a cell phone and telling you that all of their friends have one, you may be surprised to know that market research confirms that many "tweens" (8- to 12-year-olds) actually do have their own cell phones. For many teens and tweens, cell phones represent a step toward independence and status. For parents, however, cell phones provide comfort and security – knowing that they can reach their children in times of emergency.

But deciding whether it's time to cross that bridge in your own family is a big decision with many pros and cons. Here are a few things to consider as you weigh your options.

Consider the "WHY" Behind the Cell Phone

Emergency use only. First and foremost, you should consider the main reason for a cell phone. If you only want your child to have a cell phone for true emergencies, you can actually save money by handing down one of your old cell phones. Even without a service plan, an old cell phone is still capable of dialing 911. This does limit its use to real emergencies, but in some cases that may be enough. In that case, all you need is an old phone with a charger.

Mom, you need to pick me up. If you have a younger tween who's active in extra–curricular activities, an old phone may not work as well. In those cases, you may actually want them to be able to call your home or cell phone – especially for those times when basketball practice runs late and impacts your schedule.

Similarly, if you have a teenager who's driving, you may want to provide them with a way to contact you if they have a problem with the car or if they're running late. Just make sure you warn them about the hazards of talking and text messaging while driving, which are two growing reasons for accidents.

Where are you? Another reason that some parents may be interested in purchasing a cell phone is that it helps them keep tabs on where their children are and what they're doing.

In fact, many cell phones now have the option of GPS tracking, and for a fairly small monthly fee, parents can access and track a child's location either through their own cell phones or through the Internet. GPS location is typically accurate to within 25 feet or less and is fairly reliable, though the phone still needs to be charged and turned on. Some of the options offered by various providers include whether or not your child is notified when you check their location, as well as the ability to set up a specific area where you are notified by a text message when your child leaves that area.

Health and Safety Issues

Although cell phones are becoming more and more common, it's important to remember that there are some controversial health and safety issues that you should consider.

Radiation Risks? First, you need to understand that a cell phone is not actually a phone. It's more like a two–way radio that emits low levels of radiation. What is unclear is how harmful that radiation is when it's emitted close to a child's face and head.

There actually is some evidence that cell phone radiation may possibly be associated with some tumors and brain cancers. The evidence, however, is largely inconclusive. The fact is, it's hard to accurately measure the long-term impact of cell phone exposure since some cancers take 10 years to develop and cell phones have only seen mass use among children in the last few years. The World Health Organization is currently reviewing and compiling research on the topic and expects to publish more results in 2010. As of now, the World Health Organization has indicated that cell phone radiation is "unlikely to induce or promote cancer."

Still, many experts suggest a cautious, better-safe-than-sorry stance, especially since the still–developing brains and thinner skulls of children may make them more vulnerable. As a result, you may want to put a limit on the amount of time your child uses a cell phone – not only to save money on airtime, but also as a precautionary measure.

Child predators. The second important safety issue is one that some parents may not be aware of or have considered. If you think about it, cell phones give the outside world – friends and strangers alike – unprecedented access to children, often without parents knowing or monitoring that communication. This aspect is heightened by the ability to access the Internet, send and receive emails, chat using instant message programs, and of course send text messages from cell phones.

Child predators look for and exploit opportunities to communicate with children using technology that parents or adults aren't supervising. And cell phones fit the mold. In fact, Ted Thompson, President of the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children, has gone on record as saying that cell phones for children enable what he calls a sexual predator's "grooming" process by gaining trust with a child over time.

What predators are really counting on is that parents will attach an aspect of privacy to cell phones, emails, and text messages – almost as if a cell phone deserved the same privacy as a child's diary. According to experts, the best way to combat this potential hazard is to keep tabs on your child's cell phone messages and usage with technology that allows you to monitor your child's text messages and locations.

In addition, having regular discussions with your child about the dangers and appropriate use of cell phones (as well as email and instant messaging) is highly recommended.

Setting Limits

If you do decide to purchase a cell phone for your child, you'll want to establish when and how the phone can be used, including things like talking on the phone, surfing the web, purchasing ring tones, and text messaging. These features add up fast and overages can cost a small fortune.

Luckily, there are plans that can help you set limits and help teach your child about responsibility and managing their phone use. If this sounds good to you, consider plans such as T–Mobile's Family Allowances(SM), AT&T's Smart Limits™, and the TicTalk™ Mobile Phone pay-as-you-go plan. These plans offer a variety of parental controls to help you set how many minutes and text messages can be used, as well as other options such as when calls can be made.

Of course, you can also limit the number of minutes with a pre-paid cell phone plan or by simply lending your cell phone to your child when he or she needs it, rather than purchasing a new one just for them.

No Looking Back

Just remember, once you cross this bridge it will be hard to go back, especially with those pesky service contracts locking you in. So weigh your options carefully and make a decision that best fits your family's needs – whether that is a new cell phone plan for your child, a pay-as-you-go phone, or simply lending your cell phone to your child when he or she needs one.

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