For kids and cell phones these days, the parental focal point is no longer a matter of if, but when.
Data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicate that tweens and teens will own a cell phone is practically a given, with around 75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds toting a mobile device. In 2004, less than half of that age group owned phones.
In addition, the age of adolescent cell phone use is trending downward.
As of 2009, 20 percent of kids between six and 11 years old had a cell phone, according to a Mediamark survey. Moreover, cell phone ownership has increased most dramatically over the past five years -– 80.5 percent -– among ten- to 11-year olds.
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While six years old might seem awfully young for any kid to have a phone, child development experts haven't recommended an ideal age for bestowing kids with their inaugural handheld.
Instead of waiting for some magic number, the decision to get your kid a cell phone should hinge on more intangible factors, including personal responsibility, necessity and parental respect.
Likewise, putting a cell phone in children's hands before they can take care of the technology might be a waste of money and could prematurely erode family intercommunication.
As children's digital media expert Patricia Greenfield told the New York Times, "You should wait as long as possible (to get your kid a cell phone), to maintain parent-child communication."
Today, many parents hold out until middle school for making that initial cell phone purchase, and Pew Center data found that a majority of kids are now dialing in at 11 and 12 years old.
What are these youngsters doing on those mobile phones? (Hint: they aren't sexting.)
More than anything else, including talking to friends and text messaging, kids ages six to 11 fire up their phones to call Mom and Dad. Though not surprisingly, as children grow into tweens and teens, their cell phone activity transitions from family to friends.
But is cell phone ownership at an early age causing static in kids' developmental process?
A large-scale study of Danish children uncovered a correlation between fetal and childhood cell phone exposure and adolescent behavioral problems.
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However, that connection might have more to do with parental cell phone time than children's. Kids who were using cell phones at age seven were half as likely to develop borderline behavior problems than those who were exposed to cell phone in utero but not after birth.
Consequently, parental distraction by cell phones might be the root of the psychological disruption, though more research is needed to conclusively explain the connection.
As the developmental deliberation over childhood cell phone use continues, basic safety issues are much easier to address.
Although parents can't entirely control their kids' cellular communication, many wireless companies offer a menu of filtering and restricting options. Some parents have also found safety success with giving their children prepaid cell phones that don't come with as many bells and whistles as higher-end devices.
Whatever parents decide regarding their children and cell phones, they can count one thing: Kids will ask for one at some point, and they may as well establish parental cellular plan beforehand.
After all, once the cell phone debate concludes, the ‘when to get a car' question waits right around the corner.
Photo: Newton Daly/Getty Images