Technology

Give Your Child a Cell Phone?

Kids may try to sell you on a cell on grounds of safety and convenience. Don't fall for it unless your child is ready for the responsibility -- both in maturity and finances.

When should a child get an expensive electronic device, such as a cell phone?

When the child is prepared to pay part of the cost and mature enough to handle the phone responsibly (which often go hand in hand).

Kids often try to sell their parents on cell phones on grounds of safety and convenience. But face it, Mom and Dad. What kids really want to do is text-message their friends, download music or play games.

Besides, cell phones aren't foolproof when it comes to safety. If your child doesn't want to be reached, she can always turn off the phone and plead the "no service" defense.

And just because your son calls to tell you he's at Johnny's house doesn't mean he's actually there. Unless you have a GPS feature (and the idea of using GPS to keep tabs on your child strikes me as extreme), you're better off calling Johnny's parents on a land line.

In addition, experts on Internet safety worry that new generations of cell phones will provide Internet access with fewer parental controls and less privacy protection for younger children.

But the most common cause of cell-phone tension is cost -- witness those TV commercials featuring parents who dread to open their cell-phone bills or freak out when they do.

Think of all the household arguments and parental palpitations that would be avoided (and commercials that wouldn't have to be made) if it was agreed in advance that parents would pay for basic service while kids pony up for overage charges, text messaging or ring tones.

Of course, this requires that kids have a measure of self-control plus the wherewithal to pay the bill. You can help by breaking down the plan into limits kids can understand. For example, 1,000 minutes per month sounds generous, but it averages out to only about 30 minutes per day. And make sure that kids know their free nights may not start until 9 p.m.

Or go with a prepaid service, provided by Cingular, TracFone, Virgin Mobile and others, that lets you control costs by paying a set fee or buying a set number of minutes. And you don't have to bother with service contracts (go to www.letstalk.com or www.cnet.com to compare plans).

With a financial stake in the outcome, your kids will be more likely to listen to you -- and less inclined to talk.

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