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Should Your Child Have a Cell Phone?

Kids love mobile phones, but they need to learn how to use them responsibly.

In recent years, mobile phones have become extremely popular with young people. More than half of American teenagers now own a cell phone, and this number is growing quickly. Also, the age at which kids are getting cell phones is dropping, and many elementary school-aged children now carry cell phones. This trend is even more marked in countries outside the United States; for example, in New Zealand 84% of children have a cell phone by age 14.

Many parents want their children to have cell phones because they want to be able to reach their children at any time. It also gives parents peace of mind to know that their children can call them or the police in case of an emergency. However, other parents worry that the risks of having a cell phone outweigh the benefits. There are certainly risks to having a cell phone, but with education and the proper tools, your child can have the security of a cell phone with few of the dangers.

What are the risks?

Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying is when kids use the Internet to harass, intimidate, embarrass, or demean others. Kids can use cell phones to send threatening text messages or make threatening phone calls, and cell phones make it easier to do these things without being detected by parents or teachers.

Many cell phones are now equipped with cameras that can take still pictures and short videos, which can then be sent to other mobile phones or uploaded to the Internet. According to a survey by the National Children's Home charity and Tesco Mobile, 10% of children ages 11-19 have had a picture taken of them with a cell phone camera that made them feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or threatened.

Hidden Costs: Most cell phone plans charge additional fees for accessing the Web and text messaging, and kids can easily rack up high charges on cell phones by going over their plan minutes, downloading expensive ring tones, music and games, and sending too many text messages. Your child could also sign up for one of several services that will send him or her text messages, news alerts, photos and other content for a set fee per message.

Predators: Cell phones can allow strangers to contact your child without you ever knowing about it. As with instant messaging and chat on your home computer, your child needs to understand they should never give out any personal information to people they don't know, including their phone number, address, full name, or school.

Phones in Schools: Many schools have begun to restrict cell phone use in schools because they can be a disruption to students. They can also be used for cheating, as in one case at a California high school where a student was caught taking pictures of a test with his cell phone camera. While some schools require that cell phones be turned off during class periods, other schools ban cell phones completely. Find out what the rules are regarding cell phones at your child's school and make sure your child obeys these rules.

Theft and Loss: Cell phones are small, expensive objects that are easy to break or lose, and some children may not be responsible enough to take care of them. Losing a cell phone can be dangerous, since children sometimes store their personal contact information in them. Cell phones are also easy targets for theft, so make sure your child stores his or her cell phone in a safe place and doesn’t call attention to it in public. Also, your children should know to never let strangers borrow their phone.

Inappropriate Content: Many of today's cell phones have wireless Internet capabilities that allow kids to browse the Web, instant message their friends, and download ringtones, wallpaper, videos, music, and games. Mobile phones present a challenge for the protective parent because they are often used outside of the home, away from parents' watchful eyes. It is much more difficult to monitor the Internet activities of your children on a mobile phone than on a home computer, and kids may be able to access adult Web sites, videos, photos and text messages through their cell phones.

Health risks: So far, no scientific studies have conclusively proven that cell phone use presents a health risk. However, some scientists still recommend limiting cell phone use by children. The United Kingdom's National Radiological Protection Board warns that children may be more vulnerable to the radiation that cell phones emit, and they recommend that children only use cell phones for essential phone calls.

There has also been some concern about children developing repetitive strain injury from constantly typing text messages with their thumbs; however, little research has yet been done on this subject. To be on the safe side, make sure your children take breaks between texting and occasionally use other digits besides their thumbs.

How can you protect your kids?

The best way to make sure that your children use their phones securely is to talk to them about what services they can use on their phones, what content they can download, and who they are allowed to communicate with using their phones. Also, make sure your children know that they should never give out their phone number to people they don't know in real life.

Some cell phone companies have responded to the concerns of parents by creating special "kid-friendly" cell phones, including the TicTalk  and the Firefly . These phones usually have a simple interface with only a few buttons and a small screen, and they allow you to program in a restricted list of cell phone numbers that your child can call. Another service to consider is Disney's mobile phone service , which provides parents with a range of services, including the ability to set limits on cell phone usage, create a list of approved and prohibited numbers, and track a child's location using GPS.

If you are worried about your child racking up big charges on his or her phone, you might want to consider getting a pre-paid cell phone. With typical cell phone plans, you buy a package that allows you to use a certain number of minutes per month. If you go over these minutes, or if you use additional services such as text messaging and Web browsing, you are charged extra fees. With pre-paid phones, you buy a certain number of minutes at the outset, and if you want more minutes, you have to pay for them up-front. This can help limit your child's cell phone use and prevent surprise phone bills.

If you have a conventional cell phone plan and you know your child uses text messaging a lot, you may want to add a text messaging bundle to your plan, which allows your child to send and receive a certain number of text messages for a set fee. No matter which kind of plan you decide to use, make sure you and your children know what the fees are for different services, and check your bill every month to see what services your child is using.

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