Is your child ready for a cellphone?

Benjamin Villalpando got his first cellphone at age 11. He was ready for it.

NOTE: This column originally appeared on Aug. 8, 2012. 

Last spring, at an orientation meeting for fifth-grade parents at my son’s soon-to-be middle school, a parent in the crowd asked three then-sixth-graders these questions: How many of you have a cellphone, and do you really need one?

The answers were clear. All of them have phones, all of their friends have phones, and yes, they really need them.

And so, with much trepidation on our part, and much excitement on his part, our family added a third cellphone on our calling plan.

We’re not alone. A Pew Internet & American Life Study found that by 2008, 71 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 had a cellphone, compared with 77 percent of adults. A Mediamark survey found that in 2009, 20 percent of kids between ages 6 and 11 had a cellphone, but for kids in the 10- to 11-year-old range, that access has increased 80.5 percent since 2005 to 36.1 percent of those kids having a cellphone.

These numbers already have begun to rise. This July, a study by the National Consumers League and ORC International , found that, of the 802 parents of children ages 8 to 12 it surveyed, 56 percent had purchased a cellphone for their children. Safety was their No. 1 reason (84 percent), followed by tracking kids’ after-school activities (73 percent). Only 16 percent did it because their children asked for a cellphone.

Once we knew that Ben, 11, would be entering middle school wielding a cellphone, we started researching what kind of phone he would need, what plan we should get, what new fears we should have and parameters we needed to set.

The National Consumers League says parents should ask these questions when shopping for a phone for their child:

* Why does your child need a cellphone?

* Will the phone be used primarily to stay in touch with parents or for emergency use? Or will your child be using the phone for entertainment or to communicate with friends?

* How much do you want to spend per month on service?

* How much do you want to spend on the initial purchase of the phone itself?

* Is your tween mature enough to keep her minutes, texting and data use within plan limits?

* Is your tween mature enough to use the phone responsibly and avoid viewing or sending inappropriate content?

* What is your tween’s school’s policy on cellphones in school?

* Does your tween have a habit of losing things, or can he handle the responsibility of caring for a phone?

My husband, bless him, thought we could get away with giving our son a clamshell basic phone, no text messaging, no Internet, no apps. Inevitable social suicide for our son.

While we might be buying a phone for Ben to call us and let us know when to pick him up after school, that’s not the only way he’ll use it.

Mediamark’s study found that 88.1 percent of kids ages 6 to 11 do call their parents with their phone, but 68.1 percent call friends, 55.7 use it for an emergency, 54.1 percent use it to send a text, 49 percent play games, 47.8 percent take pictures, 34.4 percent listen to music, 24.2 percent text a picture and 16.5 percent download ringtones.

So we jumped ahead first to a smartphone for Ben. In this short week of phone use, Ben is texting as he’s walking home from a baby-sitting job or to say good-night. He’s downloading apps, and he’s checking the stock market and the weather daily – because he can. He’s downloading music and movies, too. He’s called his parents, but he’s not called his friends, because they haven’t exchanged numbers, yet. That will come soon.

We’ve set these guidelines: He has his own Apple ID to get apps, but he doesn’t know the password. Every time he wants to get a new app, he has to find a parent to put in the password. And there’s no credit card attached to his ID, so he shouldn’t be able to buy anything without a parent knowing.

Once he starts getting friends’ phone numbers, we’ll need to establish clear texting and phone etiquette. We need to talk about cyber bullying and sexting and all that stuff that today’s kids deal with.

Friends and readers also suggest:

* Have a contract with him so that he knows what it will cost him if he loses the phone and an understanding of how expenses such as apps will be handled.

* Establish that there are certain calls and texts that cannot be ignored. Mom and Dad calling? You have to answer, Son. And if we’re in the same house, you shouldn’t text us. You can get up off your bum and talk to us in person.

* Don’t even consider anything less than unlimited texting, and find a data plan with high usage and track it as the month goes along. We went with unlimited texting with 4 GBs shared between the three of us, knowing that we parents will probably only use 1 GB or less, and Ben might use more.

* Set clear hours for when the phone can be used. Perhaps after 9 p.m. the phone needs to go into the charger for the night. There’s some evidence about teens and sleep patterns being disturbed because of constant cellphone use.

* No cellphone during school hours. It needs to stay in his backpack or pants pocket during class.

* Set rules of who gets to touch the phone. In our case, his sister absolutely can’t, but his parents should be able to do spot checks of what kind of texting he’s been doing and be the clearinghouse for app downloads.

* The phone is a privilege, not a right. Not answering your phone, not doing well in school, fighting with your sister? You’ll lose your phone – something the league study found was a powerful tool that survey responders happily used.

* Establish that a cellphone is expensive and it costs extra for downloads. Letting him see our monthly bill might not be a bad thing.

* And when he gets older: No texting while driving.