Like me, you may be shopping for a first cell phone for a kid who's becoming more independent. And you also may be receiving entreaties from your fledgling phone owner to think smart. That is, to consider buying them a smart phone, or at least one of the many regular cell phones that come with a host of features aimed at younger users, like easy access to social networks and multimedia services. You're forgiven if you cave under the pressure. But I recommend you hold the line, and do what I'm doing for my technology-obsessed 10-year-old daughter: Get a cheap, simple phone with a prepaid plan and see how things go. Here's why:
Satisfaction with prepaid service is decent. Overall, user satisfaction with cell phone service is tepid compared with most other services we rate. But in our latest survey of cell phone service (available to subscribers), the fairly small percentage of our readers who used prepaid service were fairly happy with it. There was some variation in satisfaction among prepaid providers, as our ratings of prepaid services (available to subscribers) details.
Kids tend to lose, or destroy, handheld gadgets. Or at least mine does, based on the sad, short life of her first digital camera. A basic prepaid phone can cost as little as $10 or so, and $20 to $40 is typical. If that first phone gets lost or crushed or whatever, you can simply buy another at the same price. Which leads us to …
There's little or no commitment involved. The absence of any contractual commitment is a major plus to prepaid, not least if you're buying for a kid. The phone your child wants or needs now is likely to change, perhaps a lot, in less than the typical two-year term of the typical cell phone contract. And replacing or upgrading that phone in the middle of your contract will surely cost you a lot more than the reduced price you paid for the original unit as part of the contract agreement.
Basic may be better in a first phone. It's unclear to me how much, and how, my 10-year-old will actually use her phone. And I'm unsure how much I'll want for her to use it, beyond its obvious utility for safety and security as she becomes more autonomous. The fact that most prepaid phones aim to be little more than voice-call and texting devices inherently limits their utility — and thereby their usage. And that, in turn, limits monthly costs. Speaking of which …
You can easily limit costs. Getting your kid a prepaid phone can moderate monthly bills in several ways. First, the minimum monthly amount you'll pay for a prepaid phone can be much lower than even modest contract plans. (For example, I'm leaning toward getting a plan for my daughter that offers 60 minutes — or 150 or so texts, or a mixture thereof — a month for $9.99. I can always add extra minutes on any or all months if I want to.)
Further, I can easily set the account up such that she can't exceed that allotment without me approving the extra usage. That all but eliminates the possibility of the kind of bill shock that many parents experience with contract plans, when their kids run over the plan allotments and rack up overage charges that become apparent only when the monthly bill arrives weeks later.