'Mom, can I have a cellphone?'

Parent advice

From our panel of staff contributors

This might be one of those gifts that is discussed ahead of time to make sure everyone is on the same page. Make it clear that it isn't a toy, and she's not getting it for its entertainment value. It's a safety thing. And a longer-term benefit could accrue once the kid realizes you're treating her like an adult.

Bill Hageman

My 11-year-old, a flat-out technology geek, lobbied hard a year ago to get a smartphone on discount carrier Virgin Mobile, like his older brother. He reasoned that it would let him keep in touch with us at practices, games, after-school activities, etc. We caved and, for a while, this was the case. Now, though, he mostly forgets to keep the phone charged, as he's grown bored, we theorize, with the technology and spends time on his iPod Touch or my iPad. So we are faced with a) taking the phone away and defeating the practical purpose or b) buying him a new phone (shiny object) for Christmas to get him interested again. So to avoid this tech hamster wheel: Start with the simplest, cheapest solution you can find. If your child demonstrates interest and responsibility, maybe then you can move him or her up the technology ladder.

Steve Johnson

Expert advice

The need for a cellphone is based more on circumstances than age, says Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media parenting editor. A 10-year-old whose parents live in separate houses or who walks alone to and from school, for example, may benefit from access to a phone.

"A cellphone can offer kids more mobility and enable their independence, which they're just starting to get at age 10," Knorr says. "That can be a real positive."

If you sense the phone would be more status symbol or toy, Knorr says, you may want to hold off a year or two.

"There are some great electronic alternatives," Knorr says. "An MP3 player, a Kindle Fire, something that also has an educational component."

Common Sense has compiled a gift guide with age-appropriate tech suggestions: Go to commonsensemedia.org (click on the "gift guide" link).

If you decide your child is ready for a phone, Knorr offers a few tips:

Consider a no-frills device. Not only will a bare-bones model offer fewer temptations (gaming, Internet access, etc.), it won't sting as much if it's lost or broken.

Set time limits. "A lot of parents say, 'You can use the phone until 9 o'clock, and then it has to charge in mom and dad's room overnight,'" Knorr says. "Otherwise you get into situations where kids are texting into the night, sleeping with their phones under their pillows. It can have an effect on their ability to get a good night's sleep and, if it gets really bad, how they perform in school."

Discuss ground rules. "Kids who are 10 don't have the executive function skills to think ahead," she says. Discuss whether and how they're expected to use the various functions (camera, texting capabilities, Internet access) so they don't end up making a very public mistake that haunts them later.

Know school policy. Some schools have strict no-phone rules, others have specific hours and areas in which phones are allowed. Make sure you're familiar with your child's school rules and reiterate the importance of adhering to them.

A cellphone "can help your child become more independent and stay in touch with friends and family in a positive, healthy way," Knorr says. "But you have to weigh those things against the feeling that your kid just wants it as a status symbol."

Have a solution? Your kids become greedy, demanding monsters every December. Is this inevitable? Find "The Parent 'Hood" page on Facebook, where you can post your parenting questions and offer tips and solutions for others to try.

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