National Consumers League

Technology

NCL Technology Issues

Things to consider: Shopping for a tween's cell phone

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OnceThings to consider: Shopping for a tween's cell phone  you have a good grasp on what exactly your want out of your tween’s cell phone experience, it’s time to start shopping. You may want to start online. There are dozens of Web sites that offer consumer reviews of cell service, handsets, and features. Checking these out first can help you narrow your choices before you check out the carriers’ Web sites and start being influenced by their marketing hype.

Coverage

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, check out Web sites of the carriers that offer service in your home calling area. The carrier should fully cover all of the places that your tween is likely to use a cell phone on a regular basis. Many carriers’ Web sites feature coverage maps that show where voice and data service are offered in a particular geographic area. These maps aren’t foolproof, however.  It may be necessary to ask friend and family if they know of persistent “dead zones” in areas that your tween will be frequently using her phone. Once you’ve found a carrier that covers your area, talk to friends who use the carrier or carriers you are considering to see how they rate the service.

Postpaid or prepaid?

The second major decision involves choosing between a prepaid and a postpaid service. Most consumers are familiar with postpaid/contract-based services from national companies like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless or regional carriers like US Cellular, Cellular South or nTelos. With postpaid, subscribers pay based on a monthly bill that lists out costs of use. One benefit of postpaid service for parents shopping for a tween’s cell phone is that the phone itself is likely to be significantly discounted or even free (though an activation fee is typically charged). You will also get a monthly bucket of minutes, text messages, and data to draw from, and you may be able to place limits on your child’s use to ensure he or she doesn’t go over and rack up extra costs.

On the minus side, to get cheap phone, a new subscriber typically must sign a 1-2 year service agreement, which generally includes a hefty early termination fee. Going over monthly voice, text, or data limits can quickly run up big overage charges as well. This could be an issue if your tween has trouble controlling her usage. Finally, if you already have postpaid cellular service, you can generally add your child’s line to your account (typically, for an additional fee) and have them share your monthly allotments of voice, text and data. Keep in mind that you may need to increase your plan limits to accommodate this new usage without going over plan limits.

Alternatively, a prepaid plan typically contains no contract or overage charges. Instead of paying for a defined allotment of minutes, texts, and data every month, the subscriber pays for their allotment up front (commonly known as a “top up”). Subsequent usage then deducts from this allotment (often referred to as “units”). Unless the prepaid plan provides for unlimited calling/browsing/texting, once the allotment is used up, the phone can no longer be used until additional units are purchased or the monthly allotment is replenished (on monthly prepaid plans). In addition to not having to worry about contracts or overages, prepaid offers the benefit of only having to pay for what is used. Postpaid cellular plans typically add a significant amount of fees and taxes to the advertised prices. These fees are generally included in the initial cost.

On the minus side, prepaid handsets are not discounted as heavily as postpaid. For moderate-to-heavy users, the per-unit cost of use may be more expensive than postpaid plans, unless you have an unlimited minutes, Web browsing, and texting prepaid plan. Prepaid carriers are just now starting to offer the latest current-generation smartphones, which might be an important consideration for your family.

The importance of texting

Teens are texters – more than face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging, and voice calling, the primary way kids prefer to communicate with each other is via text messaging. Among 12-year-olds, 35 percent report sending a text message to a friend on a daily basis. Among tweens ages 11-13, 43 percent prefer texting to emailing as a way to communicate with their friends.

This means, for parents of tweens, text-messaging costs are key when shopping for a plan. The most expensive option for frequently-texting tweens is typically pay-as-you go, where each text sent and received typically costs between 15 and 20 cents. A more affordable option may be to buy a bucket of text messages or an unlimited texting plan, which tend to run anywhere from $10-20 per month. Many prepaid plans that bill monthly offer unlimited texting as part of the monthly fee.

Mobile data

More and more these days, it seems everyone is using a smartphone – cell phones that are essentially pocket-sized mini-computers. They can be used to send email, download apps, play music, surf the Web, and more. All of these gee-whiz features come with a significant catch, however: the need for a data plan. Data plans vary greatly in cost and capacity. The big national carriers typically offer metered postpaid data plans starting in the $10 for less than 100 megabytes per month and ranging up to $100 for 10 or more gigabytes per month. Some of the smaller prepaid carriers offer unlimited data plans for as little as $35 per month. Bundles of unlimited voice, text, and data are being increasingly offered on prepaid plans as well.

From a parent’s perspective, whether or not to get a data plan for a tween will likely come down to a question of budget and how comfortable you are with your child’s ability to manage their use. A data-enabled smartphone has many of the same capabilities of a small computer, allowing a tween to surf the Web, download apps (often at a price) and send instant messages. Setting clear rules and taking advantage of available parental controls to manage usage of the device are important factors to consider before getting your tween a data plan.

On the plus side, many free apps are available to allow users to send text messages at no cost. If you are comfortable with your tween having a smartphone, using one of these apps could allow you to avoid paying for a text-messaging plan.

Try before you buy

It’s generally a smart idea to have your tween see the phone in person and try it out before you purchase it. Test out the keyboard or number pad (for texting comfort), and place a test call to test volume and microphone pickup. Check out the user interface to see if it’s easy to navigate. How comfortable is it for your tween to hold the phone up to her ear for an extended period of time?

Once you’ve settled on a particular handset, see what kinds of discounts are being offered. Often, the carriers offer special online-only discounts that beat the price of the handset in the store.

NOTE: Many carriers offer a 14-30 day money-back guarantee. If you find that the phone isn’t working as advertised or if coverage is spotty, you may be able to return it in this window and avoid an early termination fee (in the case of postpaid plans).