- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2009

Your sixth-grader wants nothing more than a cell phone for Christmas. As a parent, you’re stumped - should you buy your child a phone? Parents pondering that plea from a child whose friends are all sporting the latest model have several things to consider before making a purchase.

Cell phones are an integral part of children’s lives. According to research this year by C&R; Research, a custom research firm focusing on technology issues and research among children:

c Twenty-two percent of young children ages 6 to 9 own a cell phone; 60 percent of tweens ages 10 to 14 own a phone and 84 percent of teens have their own phone.

c Cell-phone companies are now marketing to younger children with colorful kid-friendly phones and easy-to-use features.

c According to market research firm Yankee Group, 54 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds will have cell phones within the next three years.

“Parents often ask what’s the right age, what type of phone is best, how much should I spend?” said AT&T; Inc. spokesman Andy Morgan.

Plenty of options are available online, as concerned parents and family counselors debate the issue in columns and blogs. But it’s really up to every individual family, and what works best for them, Mr. Morgan said.

Jones, Okla., resident Michele Odom said her son and stepdaughter were 12 and 10 when they received their first phones, and she factored in their lifestyle and her children’s maturity level.

Many of her stepdaughter’s friends had phones, and her son balances an active school sports schedule. But the decision really came down to family dynamics.

“We have a blended family, and we needed direct communication,” she said.

With both children traveling back and forth between two families, a cell phone was the most efficient and straightforward method of keeping in touch. With a quick call or text, “we don’t have to worry about messages not getting through,” said Ms. Odom.

While her son can’t talk on his phone at school, he can keep it on to receive texts from her before heading out to games.

With a family plan for three phones and unlimited texting, the cost “is not bad at all,” she said.

Terrill Stormont, who manages two U.S. Cellular stores in Oklahoma City, said busy lifestyles and safety and convenience factors are bringing more youngsters into the store. And more of the carrier’s family plans are being purchased as parents add a third or fourth phone for their children.

Prepaid services - where phones without contracts are renewed every month - are also an option parents are looking at to see whether their children can handle the responsibility of phone ownership.

Teens continue to be a growing demographic when it comes to phones, research shows.

Less than half of teens ages 12 to 17 owned one in 2004, although that number increased to 71 percent by 2008, a survey earlier this year by the Pew Research Center showed. And no surprise: Texting is the most popular activity for connected teens, the survey said.

How can parents set boundaries?

Most cell companies offer various tools to help limit cell-phone usage for their children. AT&T; has something called Smart Limits, Mr. Morgan said.

With most of these tools, parents can set reasonable limits for the times of day that children can talk or text on their cell phones and even block incoming and outgoing calls to certain numbers on land-line and wireless phones, he said.


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