MintFamily

MintFamily with Beth Kobliner: When Should Tykes Become Techies?

Remember pleading with your parents for a new puppy? The 21st-century version of that conversation begins with, “Mom, I need a cell phone.” Puppies and phones aren’t so different: both include initial costs, regular ongoing expenses, and a whole lot of responsibility. And neither should be handed over to a child without a clear set of rules and expectations. Here’s my advice on when tykes should become techies, and how to navigate the costs along the way.

How young is too young?

Your toddler may love swiping the screen on your smartphone, but don’t worry: A recent Verizon survey shows most parents wait ‘til their kids are about 11 or 12 to get them a phone, and 95% of parents say it’s for safety and convenience. That said, some kids enter kindergarten with an emergency-only phone, while others don’t go high-tech until high school.

The choice to get a phone or not can seem daunting, full of value judgments about the brave new tech world, worries over whether you’re creating a gadget junkie, and stress over the added cost. But just like any other parenting decision, it’s about what’s right for you and your family.

First, ask yourself: Does my child need a cell phone? One advantage is that you can reach your kid and vice versa, which is especially helpful if your child has after-school activities or walks home from school. Maybe her school even recommends kids have cell phones for safety. Or, let’s be honest, does your child just want to text her friends? It may seem superficial, but remember: a cell phone isn’t so different from the standard home phone we fought over as kids. With any kind of phone, as long as you place limits—especially on those little texting fingers!—you’ll find a compromise.

Don’t just shop for a phone; shop for a provider.

In fact, when you shop for a service plan, keep that in mind that for tweens and teens it’s all about texting. A Pew study found that only 26% of teens use their phones every day for actual talking—down from 38% just a few years ago. Instead, the average teen sends 60 text messages a day (!), a number that’s on the rise. Before you begin shopping, be sure to set limits, whether by choosing a limited service plan, setting family rules about when it’s not OK to text (i.e. at the dinner table), or giving an ultimatum (i.e. if they go over their monthly limit, the fees come out of their allowance).

During that conversation, talk to your child about who’s paying for all the different aspects of the phone. Unless the purchase was your initiative (like a basic cell phone for safety), it’s fair to ask your child to contribute by saving up his allowance or dipping into his birthday money—especially if he wants a fancy (read: pricey) plan or model.

You may be tempted to purchase a family plan through your provider, in which everyone’s phones are under the same account and draw from the same pool of minutes and texts. But unless you’ll really use all the minutes and texts, it may not be the best deal. Family plans often rely on “unlimited data” plans, which may sound like a foolproof way to avoid overages, but a recent Consumer Reports analysis found that about half of AT&T unlimited plan subscribers don’t use their phones enough to take advantage of it. Turns out, they could save $10 a month by downgrading to a “metered” plan. To see if you’re overpaying for your plan and get suggestions for better plans, go to BillShrink.com.

Start with a basic model.

Now it’s time to buy the coveted object itself. Since kids are so likely to scratch and/or lose cell phones, you can save money by choosing a bare-bones model. Most families do: A Pew study released last month found that 87% of 14- to 17-year-olds have a cell phone, but only 31% have smartphones. (Feel free to quote that study when your kid says, “But Mom, everyone has a smartphone!”)

You can always strike a deal contingent on good behavior, too. A friend of mine told her 16-year-old son that she’ll pay for his phone upgrade (about $200) only if he gets good grades; otherwise, he foots the bill himself. “I realize bribery isn’t the ‘B’ in the ABC’s of Parenting ,” she admitted, “but, hey,  as a parent sometimes you do what you can.”

No matter what model you choose, shop around for the most affordable version. A brand-new, high-end smartphone can cost $199 or more from AT&T, but a refurbished earlier version might sell for $50, and, depending on the brand, some smartphone models can cost even less. (Caveat: These prices depend on whether you’re a new customer, and what service package you go for.) And don’t limit your gadget search to your provider; compare prices on Amazon, eBay, and other online sites, too.

As for the fear that he’ll break or lose the new gadget, I generally don’t recommend cell phone insurance, since most plans are filled with loopholes and don’t pay off in the end. But if you’re worried, talk it over with him as an option that he could pay for himself. Or set up your own family insurance policy: If he pays you $5 a month, you agree to chip in to help replace a lost or broken phone, but if he opts out, he’s on his own.

You’re the boss.

Just because a child has his own phone now does not mean it’s open season on using it. You’re the parent, and you get to lay down the law. Here’s one I like: Your kid must pick up when mom or dad calls. That’s the most popular rule parents set for kids around cell phone usage, according to the Verizon study. Kudos to them!

If you’re wondering how to set time limits, Larry Rosen, a California research psychologist who is an expert in technology and child development, offers this guidance: When a child is very young, she should be allowed one hour of “technology time” (texting, computer, video games) a day for every five hours of non-tech time (drawing, riding a bike, playing outside with friends). By the time children are teenagers, that ratio can gradually be reversed.

Have a conversation about apps, too. It can be all too easy to click “download” on apps. Even some “freemium” apps come with a catch. For example, some are free to install, but encourage users to spend money while they play, and those charges can add up fast. Non-“freemium” apps add up, too. Buying a handful each month is another $60-$100 per year. Either tell your child he must check with you before downloading any apps, or make clear that he pays for them.

Set up rewards and consequences for keeping and breaking these rules. If your child sticks to a limit of 50 texts for a few months, reward his self-control by upping the limit. If he goes over, take the phone away for a day.

Don’t cave to peer pressure, but don’t ignore it either.

My own kids are often last on the block to get the latest technology: No Xbox or Game Boy, and my daughter was one of the last in her class to get a Facebook account. I’m a firm believer in the old wisdom that just because “everybody” has a tablet, doesn’t mean your kids need to have one, too.

But, as Dr. Rosen explains, children today increasingly center their social lives on the Internet, for better or for worse. In fact, a Bridgewater State University study showed that by the time kids reach middle school, 83% of them have a cell phone. By totally shutting your child off, you’re keeping him from a major aspect of friendship with other kids. So, just like with your personal finances, it’s all about finding the right balance.

What kind of gadgets are your kids coveting? Have you established any tech rules in your house?

© 2012 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

Beth Kobliner is a personal finance commentator and journalist, the author of the New York Times bestseller “Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties,” and a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.