National Consumers League

'But Moooooommm!' – help for parents shopping for tweens' cell phones


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By John Breyault, NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud As kids head back to school this time of year, parents will undoubtedly soon be deluged with requests to buy cell phones for their children. Research shows that children are having these wishes fulfilled at progressively earlier ages, as well. For example, a 2009 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey found that 5 percent of 16-year-olds say they received their first cell phone at age 11 or before. Conversely, 57 percent of 12-year-olds say they received their first cell phone at age 11 or before. The complaints of family blogger Carol Brooks Ball mentioned recently are typical when it comes to parents’ headaches surrounding their tweens’ first phones: “Both of my children have cell phones. And both phones, in my mind, were purchased for the sole purpose of keeping in touch. With me. Them, not so much. To them, their cell phones serve the purpose of allowing virtually-constant contact with friends. … When I first got the kids their cell phones - when they were both ‘tweens’ - I learned the hard way about the cost of going over the wireless plan's small monthly allotment for text messaging. My daughter quickly burned through the texting limit (my son wasn't, and still isn't, much of a texter; if I send him a text message, he calls me back). While I soon set limits for my daughter due to her texting proclivities, I also quietly signed up for unlimited texting through my wireless carrier. But, how great it would have been to have had some objective guidance on the subject at the time.” It’s for parents like Carol that NCL, through an educational grant from TracFone Wireless, has produced a new consumer guide for parents of tweens getting their child’s first cell phones. When considering a tween’s first cell phone, parents have a number of important considerations to keep I mind. For example, an older teenager is likely to be using their phone to stay in touch while at an after-school job. On the other hand, a tween is less likely to be roaming far from home on their own, needing a phone only to call Mom for a ride home from soccer practice. Older teens are more likely to be riding in cars with other teens, so a serious discussion about texting-while-driving will likely be in the cards. Pre-teens probably won’t find themselves without an adult in a car, but they do take their phones with them while on two wheels, so texting-while-biking should be a topic of discussion. Tweens also may not have had as much practice in taking care of their own personal (and expensive!) electronics as older teens. To help parents with these and other issues, NCL’s new guide contains a wealth of tips for parents for figuring out why (or even if) your tween needs a cell phone, sorting through the vast universe of handsets and service plans and setting “rules of the road” for responsible use.