Making Sense

Parents' Guide to Kids and Cell Phones

Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy Your Kid a Cell Phone.
Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one Categories: Ask our parenting editor, Cell phone parenting
Parenting Editor | Mom of one

These tips can help you:

  • Decide whether your kid is ready for a cell phone

  • Teach basic cell-phone safety

  • Explain responsible cell phone rules

  • Set limits

What's the right age to get my kid a cell phone?

Age isn't as important as responsibility and maturity. If your kid can demonstrate both -- by checking in with you at appointed times, following your rules, adhering to school guidelines, and handling the phone sensibly -- then he or she may be ready. Here are a few questions to help you decide:

  • Do your children need to be in touch for safety reasons?
  • Would having easy access to friends benefit them for social reasons?
  • Can they adhere to limits you set for minutes talked and apps downloaded?
  • Will they use the text, photo, and video functions responsibly and not to embarrass or harass others?

Can I "just say no" to cell phones?

It's not a tragedy to be the only kid at school without a phone. But there are very few public phones anymore. If there's an emergency and you need to reach your kid, you'll be kicking yourself for not having gotten him one. Maybe you just don't want to buy into a tech-obsessed, always-connected culture. You can still pass along your values by modeling the tech habits you want your kids to pick up -- without missing that emergency call.

What are the basic safety rules for cell phones?

Basic safety skills are essential for kids' safety and privacy. Here are the areas kids will need to be responsible for, plus some best practices.

  • Texting
  • Calling
    • Verify the caller or texter. Don't respond to numbers you don't know.
    • Answer the phone when it's Mom or Dad. Make sure your kid knows to answer when it's YOU calling!
  • Cameras
    • Ask permission. Before you snap someone's picture, take a video, or forward something, ask if it's OK.
    • Don't publicly embarrass people. Don't post someone's photo -- especially unflattering ones -- from your cell phone without permission.
  • Apps and downloads
    • Manage costs. Make sure your kids understand that they're spending real money when they download apps, games, and music.
    • Use filters. Check your phone for parental controls that let you filter out age-inappropriate content, restrict downloads, and prevent in-app purchases.
  • Posting
    • Be selective -- not impulsive. Make sure kids know to be very selective about what they post from their cell phone.
    • Be safe. Explain why they shouldn't use location services.

What should I do if someone "sexts" my kid?

This can happen -- even accidentally! Tell your kid to delete the photo and block the number. And if someone asks your kids to send them a "sext," make sure your kids say no and tells you if they're being pressured.

My kid's friend texted an embarrassing photo of her to friends. What should I do?

She learned the hard way that kids can use cell phones to humiliate others by forwarding texts, photos, and other things that were thought to be private. First, explain that this is a form of cyberbullying. Next, talk to the other kid's parents -- and show them the evidence. Don't accuse -- but do make sure that you're all on the same page about what's appropriate behavior. Make sure your kids don't retaliate, but do make sure they're standing up for themselves and have supportive friends who will also stand up to bullies. Also consider discussing the matter with your kid's school -- the bully may actually be acting out due to other problems.

Is there anything I can do about the spam my kid's phone gets?

Cell phone spam (unsolicited bulk messages) is a growing problem -- and if kids click on these ads, they may be unwittingly giving away information or opting into a service. Call your cell phone company to report the problem; they may ask you to forward the spam to a specific number. Then, block the caller, either by using your phone's settings or going through your carrier.

Should I buy parental controls from my wireless carrier?

There are pros and cons to purchasing these services, which let you do everything from filtering inappropriate content to blocking phone purchases to locating your kid on a map. The main "con" is cost. Some of these features can be expensive, and you may be able to find cheaper alternatives through the phone's built-in settings or through third-party apps. But on the "pro" side is need. While we like to think our kids will be completely responsible, some kids will resist your rules. If your kid is risking safety, privacy, and money, it might be worth looking into these services.

Are smartphones OK for kids?

Kids love smartphones. And why not? They can play games, access the Internet, video chat -- and do lots of other advanced activities. If you're going to spring for a smartphone, get one that allows you to turn off features you don't want your kids using (like the ability to purchase apps) and keep the ones that you're OK with (like texting).

How do I keep tabs on my kids' cell phone use without seeming intrusive?

Some parents say, "If I'm paying for it, I'm entitled to read my kids' texts, check their call log, and know who their buddies are." That's valid, but kids consider these devices to be as personal as diaries, so tread cautiously. Spot checks are a good idea. You know your kid best. If you sense something isn't right, spot check more often. Explain that your rules are for their safety and protection and that you need to be able to make sure they're using their devices appropriately.

My kid seems addicted to her phone. What do I do?

Experts have compared cell-phone dependency to gambling. Every text, email, and update is like a "hit" you begin to crave. Hopefully, you're just dealing with a compulsive habit that you can manage by structuring your kids' time. Schedule time for the phone to be on and off, schedule activities where the cell phone can't be used, and look into programs that block the phone from being used. If you suspect the problem is true addiction, talk to your pediatrician.

About Caroline Knorr

As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for... Read more

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Comments (15)

Good day. My son is 13 and in high school this year. I have found porno site he has visited as well as sites with graphic images been viewed. I know kids experiment and know they start doing things like this but I dont know how to monitor it and what is an acceptable age appropriate phase of this. He also has an android phone which goes everywhere with him as does all his friends. Please advise a desperate Mom. Thanks
Good day. My son is 13 and in high school this year. I have found porno site he has visited as well as sites with graphic images been viewed. I know kids experiment and know they start doing things like this but I dont know how to monitor it and what is an acceptable age appropriate phase of this. He also has an android phone which goes everywhere with him as does all his friends. Please advise a desperate Mom. Thanks
Very useful advices allocated here about parents guide! I think to teach kids about mobile safety and other important aspects of mobile technology, this post tips are very helpful. Thanks for nice advices.
Wow. You're going into the 21'st centuary kicking and screaming, aren't you? "Don't buy into a tech oriented culture." Seiourously? The day people have that choice is the day society ends. I taught my kids (now 14 and 17) always to put passwords on their phones and computer accounts and, quite frankly, it doesn't bother me that i don't know them, not because i trust them, because I think that they are old enough to make their own decisions, whatever they may be.
I tend to be the hypervigilant mom in my daughter's group and am often met with blank stares when I talk about locking down the browser on her Nintendo, or when I ask other parents how they're filtering material on their kids' new iPhone touch. I do my research, and was comfortable buying my daughter a Kajeet Sanyo 2700 a few years ago. I've been really happy with the service and features ... so happy that I upgraded her phone to an LG Optimus for her birthday. BIG MISTAKE!! On the Android, Kajeet's Smart Blocker only works when kids use the browser on the data plan. If they download an app that circumvents the browser they will have unrestricted access to the Internet. The same is true if they use the browser with wifi. Kajeet offers no way to lock wifi on the phone or filter app downloads ... I've had to download apps myself to do this, which undermines my whole reason for going with Kajeet in the first place. Yes, I take responsibility for teaching my daughter appropriate use of her cell phone, but don't feel that Kajeet is living up to their advertised pitch as the "safest and most affordable cell phones for kids"!
All these tips are great! A recommendation: Look into - I recently stumbled upon this provider with EXCELLENT options for plans that focus on texting (how many kids actually TALK on their phones?), have great control over how much $$ they are capable of spending beyond their regular allowance and you can see what numbers they are texting/picture messaging/calling (to AND from). You can block certain numbers, certain times of day, etc and yet set your parental phone numbers to be an exception to those rules so they can always call/text YOU if they are in a pinch during those blocked times....real time GPS locating, etc is a great tool they offer, too. Anyway, I just stumbled on it a couple months ago - I have my college student set up with unlimited texts and pictures with 300 voice day minutes and a 1000 minutes on nights/weekends voice addon - she is fine with that. My 13yo has unlimited texts with a $1.00 allowance for picture messaging and 60 talk minutes plus I block all texts/calls during school hours and bedtime hours - she is fine with that as well. Neither of my kids has internet access - my college student can pay for her own if she wants it, LOL - my 13yo doesn't need it, really. Yup - - my new favorite cell phone provider.
With all due respect to the author, this article fails to address the very real conflict and consequences which can affect families after introducing a cell phone into their child's life. Having been down this path and having experienced unexpected, unintended, serious consequences, I would make these suggestions: 1) DO use parental controls from the beginning. Easier to remove them than to add them later 2) REQUIRE your child to provide the password to their phone, if your family agrees that the phone can be password protected 3) MONITOR your child's incoming/outgoing texts from the beginning and observe your child's overall response to this second layer of their social life. Unfortunately, kids today are inundated with base, vulgar entertainment (no matter how careful you are, it is out there, and your kids' will definitely have friends who are exposed to it, and who will follow the example in terms of language and beyond). What kids say to each other via text is more bold (either forward or hurtful) than in person and can be beyond the social skills your child has acquired so far. My advice: if you see this, nip it in the bud and get rid of the phone. 4) DO NOT allow internet access via phones. Much harder to filter on phones than on computers. Once they are 'in' a website, such as YouTube or Facebook, filters do not apply to that site's content. (If you all know of filters that do, please share). 5) DO NOT allow social networking until about 16. Probably sounds extreme, but having been down this road with two sensitive kids, the risk of their missing out on something on-line compared to the negative impact it can have on their daily life is absolutely nil. Keep them living, active, busy, growing in the REAL world! If you have kids that had been respectful, cooperative, motivated, in their life so far, and become disrespectful, overwhelmed/defiant, unmotivated to do anything other than consume entertainment -- check out Total Transformation. I wish I had NOT provided my child with a phone, and I wish I had implemented the recommendations of Total Transformation two years ago. Finally, I also agree with the first comment re: health risks. Good luck!
Thanks for a helpful article. Mobile technology is a scary world for parents to have to navigate. I use the Famigo Sandbox which locks my android phone so that the young ones can't access objectionable content online. It blocks texts, in app purchases, and keeps kids off the internet and out of your email. It also recommends good, family friendly apps and has a cool wishlist feature so that your kids can tell you what apps they want without having the ability to buy them. That way, you can hand your smart phone to your kids, (even toddlers) and know they'll be safe. It probably wouldn't work for high school students, but it could help teach good phone use habits so that when your kids get older you could avoid some of the problems this article mentions.
I was very disappointed that this article doesn't address safety of cell phones in terms of health. Kids who keep them in pockets are at risk of damage to gonads that can affect their ability to have a child, not to mention possible cancer links. I'm including two articles. I hope to see this addressed in future postings. - Mitch,9171,2029493,00.html