I recently asked my oldest son what he wanted for his 13th birthday. His answer: a cell phone.
Hmm, I thought. A cell phone, for a 13-year-old? It seemed a bit young to me — and just who exactly did he plan to call, anyway?
“Can’t you just call people on our home phone?” I asked.
“Mom, that’s a home phone” my son replied. “It’s not cool.”
Really? They seem to work the same to me, I said. My son just gave me a blank stare.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Seventy-five percent of all 12- to 17-year-olds now own cell phones, up from just 45 percent in 2004. Of course, teens today typically text much more than they call. And texting opens a whole new can of worms I really don’t want to deal with right now, what with teens bullying via text and all.
But according to Pew Research, cells phones have become the indispensable tools of teen communication. And texting is the preferred mode between tweens and teens; calling comes in a close second. Fully 72 percent of all teens — or 88 percent of teen cell phone users — text. More than half (54 percent) do so daily, sending hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of text messages a day. Whew.
What are other parents doing?
To find out, I asked among my family and friends. Naturally, I got as many different answers as the people I asked. Most parents seem to wait until middle school, when the necessity becomes greater, since kids are out more and parents need to be able to reach them. However, I did find some parents who waited until their child turned 16 and had a driver’s license. One friend told her 12-year-old he would get a cell phone when he made straight A’s. She figures she won’t be buying one anytime soon.
Get the process started:
• Shop around. Some plans are fairly affordable; just don’t buy more service than you need. And consider what type of phone you are comfortable with for your child. Do you want a voice-only or voice/text-only? Do you want a QWERTY keyboard or touch screen? Will you allow your child to send pictures or receive multimedia messages? Do you want him to be able to surf the web?
• Weigh prepaid service versus contracts. There are so many options here, it makes my head swim. A popular one for kids is the prepaid cell phones by companies like Tracfone. These sell for as low as $9.99 and have a variety of airtime options. You can purchase a pay-as-you-go card or add a set number of minutes each month. Another option: add your child to your family plan, which can cost as little as $5 to $10 a month.
Cell phone carriers also offer parental control packages for a few dollars a month. Parents can monitor their child’s calls and texts, restrict downloads, and program times for the phone to shut down at night.
Companies such as Fireflymobile.com and Kajeet.com offer no contract, and special plans for children and teens. Firefly targets kids under 12 and has built-in parental controls. Kajeet markets itself more to teens and offers cell phones starting at $34.99, with monthly plans beginning at $4.99. All plans offer the same “unlimited parental controls.”
So when will my oldest get a cell phone, you ask? We’ve decided he can have one as soon as he keeps his room clean for a month. I figure we won’t be buying one anytime soon.
— Bargain Beth is written by Memphis freelance writer and bargain hunter Beth Bartholomew.