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. • If you're contemplating the decision, here are some tips from the NCL:
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?
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.
Picking a plan
First, you want a carrier that covers the areas 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 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 up front 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 mi msg?
Choose the texting 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 to $20 a month, says the NCL.
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.
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 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.
Check with your son's 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.
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.