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Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?

Consider the fine print before you let your child go mobile.

Teen Drivers and Texting

Texting while driving is a huge risk. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study shows it’s the most distracting task a driver can do.

Other research has found that talking on the phone -- hands-free or not -- affects driving ability as much as drinking alcohol. And 28% of all traffic accidents are caused by drivers using a phone to text or call, according to the National Safety Council.

Don't assume your teen won't use a phone while driving. In one survey, more than half of teens aged 16-17 who own cell phones said they have talked on the phone while driving, and a third of those teens who text admitted that they have texted while driving.

"Lots of kids think they can multi-task," Lori Evans, MD, director of training in psychology at the NYU Child Study Center, says. "But multi-tasking isn't really multi-tasking. It's just shifting attention. So kids think they can text and pay attention to the road, but in reality they can't. That's dangerous."

Talk to your teen about the risks. Follow up over time to make sure he or she gets the message.

Above all, set a good example. If they see you texting (or talking) while driving, you've undermined the lesson you want them to learn.

More Than a Phone

Cell phones can also put social media, videos, games, movies, music, and TV shows within reach. Are you ready for your child to have that kind of access?

Social interaction can be positive. It's one way kids can learn to relate to other kids. But there is also the potential for "cyber bullying," which is social harassment via text, instant messaging, or other social media. Many smartphones have a "location sharing" feature, which could raise concerns about people stalking kids as they go from place to place.

There isn't a lot of research yet on how cell phones affect mental and emotional health. But early studies show that frequent texting and emailing can disrupt kids' concentration. It can also become compulsive if kids start being "on call" 24/7 to keep up with their friends.

When Are They Ready?

Think beyond your child's age before making the cell phone decision.

Caroline Knorr, parenting editor with the nonprofit group Common Sense Media, says, "Maturity and the ability to be responsible are more important than a child's numerical age.

She says, "We want our kids to be independent, to be able to walk home from school and play at the playground without us. We want them to have that old-fashioned, fun experience of being on their own, and cell phones can help with that. But parents have to do their research and talk to their children and make sure they're using the phones safely themselves, too."

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