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How young is too young for a cellphone or smartphone?

Ask Maggie offers advice on when children should get their first cellphone and when parents should consider buying a smartphone.

More than 90 percent of Americans own a cellphone today, and a growing number of those cellphone users are children. But how young is too young for a cellphone?

Cellphone or smartphone for kids?

Dear Maggie,

This is a two-part question. I'm considering getting a cellphone for my 11-year old daughter for Christmas. A lot of girls in her class already have phones. She's been begging me for one. But I'm not sure if this is too young. What do you think?

Also, at what age do you think it's appropriate for a child to switch from a regular feature phone to a smartphone? Are there any phones or services you can recommend? And can you offer any advice for preventing overages?


Dear Annemarie,
I'm probably a bit more conservative than most people on this subject, but I think it's better to wait as long as possible before giving your child a cellphone.

While I recognize that it can be a nice convenience for busy parents and families with hectic schedules, I think it also can turn into a huge distraction for kids and it opens a whole can of worms in terms of social interaction for children at a time when they may not need to be connected every moment to their peers. And if the only reason you are getting the phone is because her friends have them and she wants to socialize, then I think it's wise to wait.

In particular, I am not a fan of elementary or middle school age children having their own cellphones. And neither are some parenting experts.

"When you give your child a cellphone you are giving him or her a lot more freedom and access to a social life that can't be supervised," said Marybeth Hicks, editor of Family Events, a newsletter for families and moms, and author of two books on parenting. "A lot of parents are blindsided by some things that come up as a result of kids using cell phones, and the truth is they are the ones providing that access."

Hicks, who has four children, said she recommends that kids get their first cellphone in high school.

"Getting a cellphone is a rite of passage in our house," she said. "It's something my kids get in the summer between eighth grade and their freshman year of high school."

Hicks said that giving them her children their first cellphone is a sign of their growing independence and maturity that comes along with entering a new chapter of adolescence. It also provides that "electronic" tether to home. Her children know that once they have that cellphone they are expected to call her if they find themselves in a situation in which they aren't comfortable with what's going on around them. With a phone in hand, there's no excuse for not calling mom when they're at a party without any parental supervision or where other kids might be drinking alcohol or doing drugs.

I mostly agree with Hicks philosophy, and so I think that 11-years-old is a bit young to give a child a cellphone of her own. Again, I know lots of people do it, and I am not passing judgement. I just think that kids today will have a lifetime of gadgets and cellphones. It won't hurt them to wait another few years before getting one of their own.

Instead, I'd recommend using an old phone or a cheap feature phone as a "family" phone that can be kept on the family cell phone plan for $10 a month and loaned out to any child in the family on an as needed basis.

Samsung Intensity II - metallic blue (Verizon Wireless)
Samsung Intensity II (Verizon Wireless) Josh Miller/CNET

For example, you might want to give your 11-year old daughter the "family" phone if she is going to the movies or a middle school dance, so she can call you when she needs a ride home. But I think it's probably unnecessary for her to have her own phone to text message her friends. While I don't think that all text messaging between tweens is bad, it's an interaction that you as a parent are not able to monitor in real time.

When is the right age for a smartphone?

So that's my recommendation for an 11-year-old. But what about older kids? When is it appropriate to get your kid a phone, and when should you consider getting your child a smartphone?

Life was much easier for parents a few years ago when cellphones did one thing, made phone calls. But now with smartphones, kids can get full access to the Internet on their phones. While this can be a great thing, especially for adults, when you're searching for a nearby restaurant or need directions to your doctor's office, as a parent, it adds another element of risk for your children who now have access to all kinds of inappropriate content in their pockets.

If you feel comfortable allowing your child to have open access to the Internet and to social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, on your home computer, then you can consider allowing a smartphone. Again, I would suggest that this kind of access is not appropriate for elementary or middle school children, but more for an older teenager, who is more mature.

It's hard to put an exact age on this, but I'd say that if you follow my philosophy a feature phone would be appropriate as a first cellphone for when a child first enters high school. And a smartphone might be more appropriate for a junior or senior in high school. Again, I think you need to consider the maturity of your child when deciding at what age to allow a smartphone.

If you take my advice, be careful when you're shopping for a phone for your child. To complicate matters further, the distinction between regular feature phones and smartphones is quickly fading. And wireless operators are making it more difficult to find bare-bones phones for wireless subscribers. Instead, they are trying to steer customers, whether they are adults or children, into devices that use more data services, which means more access to the Internet and social networking services like Facebook and Twitter.

Not only does it provide access to services and content you may not want your kids accessing, it also costs more money. So beware.

If you can't find the most basic, no-frills cellphone that doesn't offer any access to the Internet while you're shopping for a phone, you can still consider a more souped-up feature phone, or "quick messaging" device. But if you don't want to enable access to the Internet, make sure you check out the parental control options through the carrier you are using to shut off access to the Internet. The bigger nationwide carriers all offer some parental controls, but check out their websites for specifics or ask the salesperson for more information.

These "quick messaging" devices featured on many carrier Websites can be a good choice if you're willing to use the parental controls for several reasons. First, they serve as a perfect gateway between a regular feature phone and a smartphone. With parental controls, you can limit access to services like data, as well as limit when they can access the phone and which numbers they can call.

But as your child matures, you can allow more access through the control Website. So your son or daughter can get more functionality as he or she matures.

Samsung Solstice II
Samsung Solstice II (AT&T) Samsung

The second reason these phones are great is that they are inexpensive to buy and own. Often you can get one for free or for less than $50 with a two-year contract. And if you restrict the data service, you don't need to subscribe to an additional data plan.

These devices also appeal to kids because they come in cool colors, and most of them have full QWERTY keypads or touch screens, which are great for text messaging and accessing social networking sites.

Some good examples of these phones are the Verizon Wireless's Samsung Intensity II, which Verizon markets it as "one intensely social phone." It has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard for quick messaging and it has Facebook and Twitter integrated into the device for fast access to those services. It also can work with Verizon's V CAST Music with Rhapsody service, which costs extra. (This service can also be restricted through the parental control settings.)

Verizon also has the LG Cosmos 2, which is free with a two-year contract. It has QWERTY keyboard and 1.3MP camera and also offers access to Facebook and Twitter.

AT&T also a lot of these "quick messaging" devices, such as the Samsung Solstice II, which has a QWERTY keyboard and a touch screen. It comes free with a two-year contract from AT&T. Or another QWERTY phone, the Samsung Evergreen.

Verizon and AT&T have several phones in this category and they frequently change their special offers, so check on the Website or at a retail store for the best deals.

Controlling what your child can and cannot access on a smartphone gets a little trickier. Apple has a pretty good set of parental controls for iOS devices, which includes the iPhone. So you could restrict the downloading of certain apps or you could turn off the Safari Internet browser altogether. But you'll still be paying for the data plan. And while voice minutes can be shared in a family plan, data usage cannot. So when you add smartphones to a family plan or you add data to a "quick messaging" feature phone, every line requires its own data plan. And these charges can really add up.

What's more, new smartphone subscribers on AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the two largest wireless providers, cannot get unlimited data service. So there is a risk that your child could run over the usage cap, especially if you're an AT&T subscriber and plan on getting the 200MB plan for $15 a month. (Most users, even kids, should be find with the AT&T 2G service for $25 a month or Verizon's 2GB plan which costs $30 a month.)

If cost is your primary concern, then prepaid services might be a better option for some families. You can get basic feature phones for calling and texting, as well as inexpensive smartphone plans. Services, such as Virgin Mobile and MetroPCS offer full fledged Google Android smartphones for $100 or less. And you can get a plan for as little as $35 a month from Virgin Mobile. The service includes unlimited texting and data with 300 minutes of talk time. MetroPCS offers unlimited voice, texting and data for $40 a month.

With prepaid services, you won't have to worry about your teenager exceeding the talk, texting or data usage limits, since they can't exceed their monthly limit. But the downside is that you won't have the ability to control the service and usage as much through parental control settings as you would through a bigger carrier.

I hope this was helpful. And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.