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 last 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 so-called "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 (NCL) in Washington.
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 earlier this month, his mom, Elizabeth Gonzales, said he got his first phone at 10 "for safety reasons." Even when he's outside with friends in their Sacramento, Calif., neighborhood, she likes knowing that Brandon can call home in any emergency. "It gives me peace of mind," Gonzales said.
There's plenty of debate as to when 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 NCL 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," she said.
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 mi 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 the 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," says 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