Techno Family

Tough Calls:
Before giving kids a cell phone, parents face
decisions on features, plans, rules and maturity

by Carolyn Jabs

Cell phones have now absorbed most of the cool digital technology from the past ten years. Listen to music? Snap a picture? Watch a movie? Play a game? Browse the Internet? Locate a friend? Send a text message? A cell phone can do it all. Often, the phones are so loaded with features that an actual phone call seems like an afterthought.

These multi-tasking devices pre--sent a real dilemma for parents. Children as young as age 6 are eager to have their own cell phones. And many parents are now convinced that being able to reach their children anyplace and anytime is a crucial part of keeping them safe.

Unfortunately, the typical cell phone also gives children portable, unsupervised access to multiple modes of communication, to virtually unlimited media and to strangers. All the careful precautions parents take in other settings to shield kids from dangerous people and inappropriate media can be undermined as soon as a child gets a cell phone. Although phone companies were slow to appreciate this problem, more and more are offering parents the kinds of controls routinely found on computers.

AT&T, for example, has a new program called Smart Limits which lets parents limit Internet access and block downloads. Another phone service called Kajeet features a pay-as-you-go contract which gives parents control over how much a child spends and when the phone can be used.

Promising as these developments are, they don’t cover most phones and carriers. In general, parents will start the search for a cell phone by asking basic consumer questions about local coverage and pricing plans.

When it comes to a phone for a child, however, parents need to take the extra step of asking tough questions that will put them firmly in charge of what their child can and can’t do with the phone.

Here are some of the issues parents face.

Is your child old or responsible enough to keep track of a phone? One in four cell phones is lost, stolen or damaged. Losing a cell phone is costly. Replacement insurance might be available, but that will add to your bill. Also, if your child is going to leave the phone in a backpack or on the bench at the soccer game, its usefulness as a security device is seriously compromised.

Is a starter phone a good idea? Some companies offer phone-like devices that can make and receive calls only from numbers programmed by parents.

Firefly’s colorful glow Phone limits calls to 20 pre-selected phone numbers. The more utilitarian Tic-Talk lets kids call specific numbers and play educational games from Leapfrog. These phones may be acceptable to very young children, but parents of slightly older kids are likely to do better with a very simple, inexpensive cell phone that can be set up to limit incoming and outgoing calls.

Should the phone have photo or video capabilities? Yes, it’s fun to snap spontaneous pictures. On the other hand, the digital images taken by cell phones often compromise privacy. Will your child have the judgment to delete, or never make, images that reveal too much or hurt a friend’s feelings?

Should the phone have GPS? Some phones such as Wherifone use global positioning to pinpoint where a phone is located. That means parents can track kids online on very detailed satellite maps. Parents need to think carefully about how this feature might effect the trusting relationship they want with their child. Also, GPS raises safety questions because parents aren’t the only ones who can use it to locate a child.

What kind of messaging should your child do? Making a phone call is a relatively public act. People can hear what you say and the call is recorded on the phone bill. Text and instant messaging are much more private. Although kids love these capabilities, they are hard for parents to supervise. If you purchase a phone and a service plan that permit IM or text messaging, be sure you can trust your child to use these features only with people he knows in real life.

Should the phone be web-enabled? A child with web access can visit chat rooms and websites, including porn sites that target cell phone users. Unfortunately, unlimited web access is often bundled with text messaging or extra minutes.

If you can’t order services a la carte, ask whether your provider can at the least block adult websites. If you have controls on what your child can do on the family computer (and you should!), think twice about providing a phone that doesn’t have comparable safeguards.

How much are you willing to pay? Some parents offer to chip in the cost of a basic phone. If kids want more bells and whistles, they must earn the difference. Also, be clear about what services you will subsidize. How many minutes or text messages does the plan include? How can your child keep track? Will you pay for ring tones? Games? Music downloads?

If your child has trouble sticking to a budget, you might want to opt for a pre-paid phone. When the minutes are gone, the phone goes dead.

When can the cell phone be used? Most schools expect kids to leave cell phones in lockers during classes. Make a comparable rule about family dinners, study time, bedtime or other occasions when you want your child’s undivided attention directed toward something other than the incoming ring tone. Be sure teens know they must never use a cell phone while driving.

What are the rules about downloads? Cell phone games aren’t rated, so preview games your child wants to be sure they aren’t violent or sexual. Ditto for music downloads. Even ring tones should be screened because some are obnoxiously loud or even obscene.

After establishing your guidelines, check the monthly phone bill carefully to be sure they are being respected. Ask about any phone numbers you don’t recognize — especially calls to or from an area code other than your own. Because some kids, including jilted friends, use cell phones to harass each other, inquire about multiple calls to or from the same number. Also notice when calls are being made. Kids shouldn’t be using phones during school hours or in the middle of the night.

Be sure any downloads are acceptable, both in cost and content. And ask, every once in a while, to see the photos or videos your child has taken with the phone.

Having a cell phone puts lots of power quite literally in the hands of a child. It’s up to parents to be sure that child understands Spider-man’s rule: With great power comes great responsibility!

Carolyn Jabs is a freelance writer specializing in family technology.