National Consumers League

Tweens and cell phones: A guide for responsible use

Cell phones are becoming increasingly common among younger teens and tweens. To help parents manage their tween’s use of a cell phone, NCL has put together advice for families on how to shop for tweens’ phones, how to keep down costs, and how to set some simple rules to make sure a child doesn’t misuse the phone.

Cell phones seem to be as much a part of teenage life as schoolwork, hanging out at the mall, and obsessing over what to wear to prom. But these days, children are beginning to receive their first wireless phones at progressively younger ages. According to a new 2012 NCL survey, nearly six out of 10 parents with tweeners surveyed (56 percent) have purchased cell phones for their young children.

Although cell phones are becoming more common among younger teens and tweens, there are major differences in the issues parents face when shopping for and managing the use of a tween’s mobile device as opposed to an older teenager’s phone. For example, a 16-year-old driving herself to an after-school job is likely to use a wireless device differently than a 12 year-old who is still dependent on a parent for rides to soccer practice and not venturing far from home independently.

Figuring out how to manage a child’s use of one of these high-tech gadgets can often require the skills of a seasoned diplomat, the steely nerve of a tightrope walker, and the tech savvy of a Silicon Valley computer geek. To help parents plan for and manage their tween’s use of a cell phone, NCL offers the following advice on how to shop for tweens’ phones, how to manage their costs, and how to set some simple rules to make sure a tween doesn’t misuse the phone.

Before you buy

Before beginning the shopping for a tween’s cell phone, ask yourself some basic questions to set expectations for your family.

  • Why does your child need a cell phone?
  • Will the phone be used primarily to stay in touch with parents and for emergency use? Or will your child be using the phone for entertainment or to communicate with friends?
  • How much to you want to spend per month on service?
  • How much do you want to spend on the initial purchase of the cell phone itself?
  • Is your tween mature enough to keep their minute use, texting and data within plan limits?
  • Is your tween mature enough to use the phone responsibly and avoid viewing or sending inappropriate content?
  • What is your tween’s school’s policy on cell phones in school?
  • Does your tween have a habit of losing things or can he or she handle the responsibility of caring for a phone?

Write out your answers to these questions and keep it with you when you shop. Having this list with you can help keep these important factors in mind when shopping for a cell phone. It will also help you stay focused when your tween inevitably starts to drool over phones that may not fit their and your needs.

Things to consider: Shopping for a tween's cell phone

Once you have a good grasp on what exactly your want out of your tween’s cell phone experience, it’s time to start shopping. You may want to start online. There are dozens of Web sites that offer consumer reviews of cell service, handsets, and features. Checking these out first can help you narrow your choices before you check out the carriers’ Web sites and start being influenced by their marketing hype.


Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, check out Web sites of the carriers that offer service in your home calling area. The carrier should fully cover all of the places that your tween is likely to use a cell phone on a regular basis. Many carriers’ Web sites feature coverage maps that show where voice and data service are offered in a particular geographic area. These maps aren’t foolproof, however.  It may be necessary to ask friend and family if they know of persistent “dead zones” in areas that your tween will be frequently using her phone. Once you’ve found a carrier that covers your area, talk to friends who use the carrier or carriers you are considering to see how they rate the service.

Postpaid or prepaid?

The second major decision involves choosing between a prepaid and a postpaid service. Most consumers are familiar with postpaid/contract-based services from national companies like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless or regional carriers like US Cellular, Cellular South or nTelos. With postpaid, subscribers pay based on a monthly bill that lists out costs of use. One benefit of postpaid service for parents shopping for a tween’s cell phone is that the phone itself is likely to be significantly discounted or even free (though an activation fee is typically charged). You will also get a monthly bucket of minutes, text messages, and data to draw from, and you may be able to place limits on your child’s use to ensure he or she doesn’t go over and rack up extra costs.

On the minus side, to get cheap phone, a new subscriber typically must sign a 1-2 year service agreement, which generally includes a hefty early termination fee. Going over monthly voice, text, or data limits can quickly run up big overage charges as well. This could be an issue if your tween has trouble controlling her usage. Finally, if you already have postpaid cellular service, you can generally add your child’s line to your account (typically, for an additional fee) and have them share your monthly allotments of voice, text and data. Keep in mind that you may need to increase your plan limits to accommodate this new usage without going over plan limits.

Alternatively, a prepaid plan typically contains no contract or overage charges. Instead of paying for a defined allotment of minutes, texts, and data every month, the subscriber pays for their allotment up front (commonly known as a “top up”). Subsequent usage then deducts from this allotment (often referred to as “units”). Unless the prepaid plan provides for unlimited calling/browsing/texting, once the allotment is used up, the phone can no longer be used until additional units are purchased or the monthly allotment is replenished (on monthly prepaid plans). In addition to not having to worry about contracts or overages, prepaid offers the benefit of only having to pay for what is used. Postpaid cellular plans typically add a significant amount of fees and taxes to the advertised prices. These fees are generally included in the initial cost.

On the minus side, prepaid handsets are not discounted as heavily as postpaid. For moderate-to-heavy users, the per-unit cost of use may be more expensive than postpaid plans, unless you have an unlimited minutes, Web browsing, and texting prepaid plan. Prepaid carriers are just now starting to offer the latest current-generation smartphones, which might be an important consideration for your family.

The importance of texting

Teens are texters – more than face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging, and voice calling, the primary way kids prefer to communicate with each other is via text messaging. Among 12-year-olds, 35 percent report sending a text message to a friend on a daily basis. Among tweens ages 11-13, 43 percent prefer texting to emailing as a way to communicate with their friends.

This means, for parents of tweens, text-messaging costs are key when shopping for a plan. The most expensive option for frequently-texting tweens is typically pay-as-you go, where each text sent and received typically costs between 15 and 20 cents. A more affordable option may be to buy a bucket of text messages or an unlimited texting plan, which tend to run anywhere from $10-20 per month. Many prepaid plans that bill monthly offer unlimited texting as part of the monthly fee.

Mobile data

More and more these days, it seems everyone is using a smartphone – cell phones that are essentially pocket-sized mini-computers. They can be used to send email, download apps, play music, surf the Web, and more. All of these gee-whiz features come with a significant catch, however: the need for a data plan. Data plans vary greatly in cost and capacity. The big national carriers typically offer metered postpaid data plans starting in the $10 for less than 100 megabytes per month and ranging up to $100 for 10 or more gigabytes per month. Some of the smaller prepaid carriers offer unlimited data plans for as little as $35 per month. Bundles of unlimited voice, text, and data are being increasingly offered on prepaid plans as well.

From a parent’s perspective, whether or not to get a data plan for a tween will likely come down to a question of budget and how comfortable you are with your child’s ability to manage their use. A data-enabled smartphone has many of the same capabilities of a small computer, allowing a tween to surf the Web, download apps (often at a price) and send instant messages. Setting clear rules and taking advantage of available parental controls to manage usage of the device are important factors to consider before getting your tween a data plan.

On the plus side, many free apps are available to allow users to send text messages at no cost. If you are comfortable with your tween having a smartphone, using one of these apps could allow you to avoid paying for a text-messaging plan.

Try before you buy

It’s generally a smart idea to have your tween see the phone in person and try it out before you purchase it. Test out the keyboard or number pad (for texting comfort), and place a test call to test volume and microphone pickup. Check out the user interface to see if it’s easy to navigate. How comfortable is it for your tween to hold the phone up to her ear for an extended period of time?

Once you’ve settled on a particular handset, see what kinds of discounts are being offered. Often, the carriers offer special online-only discounts that beat the price of the handset in the store.

NOTE: Many carriers offer a 14-30 day money-back guarantee. If you find that the phone isn’t working as advertised or if coverage is spotty, you may be able to return it in this window and avoid an early termination fee (in the case of postpaid plans).

Setting the rules of the road

Managing usage of your tween’s new cell phone can easily become a source of conflict unless clear rules are set ahead of time. Since each tween is different, the rules they are expected to follow will differ. However, there are many areas that parents and tweens should have an understanding about to ensure responsible use.

  • Set a monthly budget and stick with it. Be clear about our commitment to avoiding overages (for postpaid plans) or your willingness to purchase additional minutes (for prepaid plans),
  • Discuss whether the phone may be used for making purchases of ringtones, apps, games, etc. If you don’t want it used for these, consider setting up parental controls to block these features.
  • Talk to your children about cyberbullying. A quarter (26 percent) of teens report having been bullied or harassed through text messages and phone calls. Discuss strategies for handling cyberbullying responsibly.
  • Discuss inappropriate use of the phone. “Sexting” or sending or receiving inappropriate photos can quickly come back to haunt a tween.
  • Discuss whom the tween is and is not allowed to contact with their phone. A good strategy is to program in all allowable numbers into the phone’s contact list so that the caller ID function shows who is calling. Be clear about whether you want your child to answer calls from unknown numbers.
  • Make sure your tween knows not to give out their cell number to people they don’t know, particularly online.
  • Make sure your tween knows about distracted biking. Just as adults need to make sure and avoid texting while driving, tweens should remember to keep their eyes on the road, not their cell phones, while they’re on two wheels or walking in public places where traffic could be an issue.

For more information on managing your child’s wireless usage, click here.

NCL thanks TracFone Wireless for its support for these tips for smart and safe family use of cell phones.