Consider these criteria before shelling out for a fancy smartphone for your child.
Girl playing with ipod
Are cell phones bad for my kids' brains?Answer:The electromagnetic radiation from cell phones might be harmful to the developing brains of children, but the jury is still out. It could take decades for scientists to establish a connection. While cell phones are ubiquitous, they are still a relatively young technology. A World Health Organization study, published in May, suggests a link between heavy cell-phone use and a rare form of brain cancer in adults. (And get this: When data collection began in 2000, 2 to 2 ½ hours a month was considered "heavy" use.) Bottom line: It's not a bad idea to have young kids use a speaker, and tweens can plug in an earpiece. Or get an unlimited text plan so they can talk with their thumbs. Which educational iPhone apps should I download?Answer: For preschoolers, try Fish School ($2), which is like an animated letters-and-numbers book, and iWriteWords ($3), a writing tutorial, says Anne Zehren, former president of Common Sense Media, an online clearinghouse about technology geared toward families (including heavier topics, like sexting and cyberbullying). For elementary-school kids, she likes Pentanimals ($3), a puzzle-solving game; and for middle schoolers, try Pocket Universe ($3), which maps the sky based on where you are, so older kids can find con-stellations. To stay up to speed on new kid-geared apps, check out, which is run by two parents who also happen to be app developers.How can I expect my kids to be social human beings when I never put down the BlackBerry? (I can't! I'm working.)Answer: First, make sure you are glued to that tiny screen only when you are truly working. "You can let your child know that you need to be available to colleagues," says Zehren. "But when you're done, be done." Put the device in the trunk if you can't resist checking e-mail. At home, set up no-tech times (dinner, for one, or Sunday morning) and have everyone follow the rules. (No cheating while the kids are engrossed in pancakes.)
| Credit: Jaime Chung

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These days, kids as young as toddler-age are grabbing our cell phones to play games, watch movies, and listen to music. And as soon as that starts, the “Mom, I want one!” pleading starts happening as well.

Before adding another expense to your family’s budget, you’ll need to think about whether your child is ready for the responsibility of owning a cell phone, and how you (or she) should handle the expense of purchasing one and paying the monthly bills. Here are the benchmarks to keep in mind.

Maturity Matters, Not Age

According to a Pew Internet Survey, most kids are between 12- and 13-years-old when they get their first phone (though they note that numbers may trend younger as cell phones become increasingly ubiquitous). But Anne Collier, co-director at ConnectSafely, a non-profit organization, suggests not focusing on age, because it’s not about how old a child is, but whether he has the maturity to handle a cell phone. As a parent, only you know if your child is going to use her phone constantly to text with friends instead of doing homework, or if she’s likely to get distracted and drop the phone in a swimming pool or lose it on the bus instead of taking good care of it.

Involve Your Child in the Discussion

If your child asks for a phone, sit down together as a family before proceeding, advises Collier. Say, “I would love for you to have a phone so I can be in touch, but let’s talk about whether or not you are ready.” Ask your child what she wants to use the phone for, how she plans to manage her time so she gets enough sleep and gets her homework done, and explain to her what your rules are for when it’s appropriate for her to use the phone, and for what purposes. You should explain what phones cost—both to buy the device and the monthly service charge, so she understands the financial implications.

Teach That Cell Phones Are a Privilege, Not a Right

Even if everyone else has one, owning a cell phone is not a right, and your child shouldn’t take this expensive device for granted, says Stephany Kirkpatrick, Learnvest’s Director of Financial Planning. The first step is having your kid at least partially help pay for the phone, or earn it, instead of having an expensive, cool new gadget just handed to him. Work with him to make a plan for how he can save up to contribute a certain amount toward the phone, whether by using allowance and birthday money, getting a job, or “earning” it by doing extra chores.

You may want to ask him to chip in a certain amount each month toward his plan, too. You’ll be teaching him that if he wants something, he has to work toward getting it, and that things won’t just be dropped in his lap.

Start With the Basics

If you wouldn’t give your kid $200 to carry around in her pocket, why would you give her an expensive, top of the line smartphone? Instead, start her off with a basic phone that is just for conversation, and not for texting. Or, if you choose to give her your old phone when you upgrade, look into parental controls (like these from Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile) that carriers offer so you can block internet access, set when a child can send or receive calls or texts, set up GPS tracking, and much more. Keep in mind the carriers do charge fees for many of these options, so factor that in when you do your budgeting.

Take a Trial Run

If you aren’t entirely sure your child is ready to handle having his own phone, consider a trial period. If your kid’s grades drop, or he’s skimping on sleep or sending texts all day and night, it’s within your right as a parent to take the phone away. You may want to look into prepaid phones for this before locking into a longer-term contract.

If by some crazy twist of fate yours is the only kid in town not begging for a phone, but you’d like him to carry one if he’s out with friends without an adult, try a pay-as-you-go basic phone that the entire household can use. Keep it fully charged, and hand it to him if he’s going somewhere where you’d like him to have a phone. That way, he can hand it back over when he comes home and not be worried about paying for a monthly cell phone bill.