SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Brandon Gonzales has been carrying his black Pantech cellphone with the slide-out keyboard for two years. Brandon is 12.
And he's certainly not unusual. Over the past decade, the age of kids packing their first cellphone has been dialing back younger and younger.
This month, as millions of students swarm back to school, it's estimated that more than 75 percent of all U.S. teens have a cellphone.
And "tweens" — kids ages 9 to 12 — may be the fastest-growing cellphone market out there.
"The age a child gets a first cellphone is getting progressively younger. Parents want to be in touch with their kids," said John Breyault, who authored a new guide on tweens and cellphones for the National Consumers League in Washington, D.C.
For Brandon, a skateboarding tween, having a cellphone is no big deal. Even though he almost doesn't "know anyone who doesn't have one," Brandon said he's not much of a serial texter and only makes occasional calls.
Picking up Brandon outside his middle school last week, his mother, Elizabeth Gonzales, said he got his first phone at 10 "for safety reasons." Even when he's outside with friends in their midtown Sacramento neighborhood, she likes knowing Brandon can call home in any emergency. "It gives me peace of mind," Gonzales said.
There's plenty of debate over what age kids should get their first cellphone. If you're contemplating the decision, here are some tips from the National Consumers League:
Know the answers: Before heading to the nearest cellphone store, ask yourself some basic questions:
- Why does my child need a cellphone? Will it be used mainly for emergencies or keeping in touch with parents/family? Should it be used for games, Internet access, texting/chatting with friends?
- Does my tween lose things often? Can he/she be trusted to care for a phone?
- How much do I want to spend on the phone itself and its monthly service? Is my tween mature enough to keep texting/calling/data use within the contract limits?
Keeping those questions in mind "can help you stay focused when your tween inevitably starts to drool over phones that may not fit ... your needs," the National Consumers League notes in its online guide. (For a free copy, go to www.nclnet.org/technology.)
Have the talk: Discuss the dangers of "sexting" (sending sexually explicit photos by cellphone) and cyberbullying (sending intimidating, harassing messages). Be sure your kids know not to answer calls from unknown numbers and to never share their cell number with people they don't know, especially online.
And, while it may sound silly, explain the risks of texting while bicycling.
Set some boundaries: Sue Watkins, marketing director for a Folsom, Calif., software company, said her two teenagers got cellphones in middle school, when they began walking to school alone. "It was for us to be able to stay in touch and ensure that if they had any issues, they could reach us throughout the day," said the El Dorado Hills, Calif., resident. Knowing how distracting cellphones can be, she and her husband set some ground rules: No phones at the dinner table or while out to eat with family. No accessing the Internet on the cellphone. No texting in bed late at night.
For the most part, it's worked out fine with her 14-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son. And, she notes, given teens' devotion to their digital devices, having a cellphone is a privilege that can be yanked, if needed, for disciplinary reasons.
Picking a plan: First, you want a carrier that covers the areas (school, sports, after-school) where your tween will be using a phone the most. Next, choose between a prepaid plan and a contract-based plan, where you pay a monthly bill for services.
With a contract, your monthly bill spells out each charge. The phone itself is often heavily discounted. You select a monthly bucket of minutes, texts and data and may be able to place limits on your child's use so you don't rack up extra charges. But you're usually locked into a year-or-more service agreement. With prepaid plans, you typically pay upfront and don't pay monthly contract or overage fees. Some prepaid plans that bill monthly offer unlimited texting. The phone itself is not usually as discounted.
Gt my msg? Texting use is a big issue, so choose that option carefully. For families with text-happy kids, a more affordable option than per-text fees may be to buy a set amount of monthly text messages or an unlimited plan, which tends to run about $10-$20 a month, says NCL.
When Watkins' first monthly bill arrived with two teen cellphones included, she noticed hundreds of texts that exceeded the family's cellphone contract limits. And the per-text penalty fees were starting to add up.
"It was shocking. We now run between 2,000 and 4,000 texts a month between the two kids. I couldn't do that if I tried," said their mom.
Rather than battling over overcharges for texting fees, the family shifted to unlimited texting. Now, they pay about $140 a month for three phones (hers is work-supplied) with unlimited texting and a shared allotment of 1,400 minutes a month for voice messages.
Keeping tabs: With all the cellphone companies jostling for the tween market, there are plenty of cellphone options aimed at parents. Brands like Kajeet or Firefly Mobile have simplified button commands and let parents program in favorite numbers, as well as restrict incoming/outgoing calls and texts.
Want to know if Natalie got home OK after school?Using GPS services like Verizon's "Family Locator" or AT&T's "Family Map", you can get a text on your cellphone when your child — or at least his or her phone — arrives home from school, shows up at soccer practice or heads to a friend's house. You can even request "Schedule Checks" where at set times — say, 4 p.m., — you'll get an automatic text of your child's cellphone location. When the cellphone leaves that address, you'll get another text. Fees vary.
As Verizon reminds parents, its locator services should "not be used as child management tools" or as "a substitute for adult supervision."
SCHOOLS RULE: Check with your son or daughter's school for its policy on cellphone use on campus. You don't want an expensive phone confiscated because your kid was caught using it inappropriately.
BEFORE YOU BUY: Have your tween try out the phone. Test the keyboard or number pad and make a test call to check volume. Once you've decided on a particular phone, see what discounts are offered, in-store or online.
And note: Many carriers offer a money-back guarantee within 30 days or so. If the phone isn't working as advertised, you may be able to return it without penalty.
While his black Pantech is not a trendy Android phone or iPhone like some of his friends have, 12-year-old Brandon Gonzales says he's not bugging his parents for a fancy upgrade. "I'm just grateful to have one," he said.
"Good answer," responded his mom.