Children won't leave home without their mobile phones. Even among those as young as 12, nine in 10 now have their own mobile, according to a survey from Carphone Warehouse. But while many parents like their offspring to carry a phone in case of an emergency, with so many children talking and texting friends, staying on top of the cost of a mobile can be a challenge.
The network providers don't offer tariffs specifically for children because an industry agreement prohibits operators from marketing phones to customers under the age of 16. The easy option, therefore, is a pay-as-you-go deal. Parents buy a phone for their child and then buy top-up vouchers to pay for calls. Children can use their own money, too, of course, but once the credit has run out, no more calls can be made. That means no nasty surprises with a monthly bill.
This is certainly the advice from independent experts at Carphone Warehouse. "We always recommend pay-as-you-go phones for budgeting purposes," says a spokesman. "They are a watertight way of controlling costs, and are hugely popular with parents."
However, there are problems with this approach. Since parents don't receive a bill, there's no way of knowing whom their children are calling, or what they may have downloaded. Also, there's not much point to a phone intended for use in an emergency if the credit has been used up just when youngsters need to call home.
Orange offers one way around this by allowing pay-as-you-go users to make two 30-second calls or one 60-second call once their credit has run out. But if you want to keep a closer eye on your child, a contract phone is the best way forward. Parents, as the account holders - you have to be 18 to enter into a mobile-phone contract - can ask for an itemised bill, and can then see exactly what calls have been made and what downloads have been purchased.
Vodafone even allows customers to check bills online to see how costs are accumulating as the month progresses, which could be useful for parents who don't want a shock when the bill turns up. It also offers phones with automatic content control, enabling parents to stop children receiving inappropriate content, by blocking premium-rate services such as gambling and pornography, for example.
However, even online itemised billing doesn't give parents complete control over their child's mobile-phone usage. For this reason, Karen Darby, chief executive of the price-comparison service Simply Switch, recommends T-Mobile's Ufix deal. "It combines the best of both pay-as-you-go and contract," she says.
Ufix effectively allows parents to set an amount that their children can spend each month, with caps starting at £15. Children can top this up with their own money via the account holder at any stage. "Ufix encourages a responsible attitude to phone usage and money management, which is so important for children," says Darby. "The itemised billing option allows parents to see exactly what their children have been up to."
Orange's Your Group plan offers similar flexibility. Parents can combine their household's phones under one account, incorporating both monthly plans and pay-as-you-go phones, all with the option of itemised bills. One added benefit is that members of the group enjoy free calls to each other, which is a good way of ensuring that children will always be able to make emergency calls.
Unsurprisingly, mobile-phone experts say that children are statistically more likely to lose their mobiles than adults. While mobile-phone insurance is often criticised for its small print and high cost, it could provide useful cover for children's handsets. Darby suggests buying cover from a specialist insurer rather than the shop where you buy the phone. She recommends Fonesafe, which covers loss, theft, accidental damage and airtime abuse, for a £5.99 monthly premium. "It's vital to read the terms and conditions of any insurance policy closely as they can be very specific," Darby warns. "People must also report theft or loss to network service providers within 24 hours."
Finally, Vodafone publishes "Staying in Touch: A Parent's Guide to Mobile Phones", a free booklet including tips on how to avoid costly spam, nuisance calls and bullying via mobiles. See www.vodafone.com for details.
'I can call him and ask him to come home'
Bridget Thompson gave her 10-year-old son, Bradley, a mobile phone for safety reasons and to give him some independence.
"If he's at a friend's house I can just give him a call and ask him to come home rather than having to pick him up," she says. "It's less hassle for me and makes him feel much more grown up."
Bradley covers the cost of his pay-as-you-go phone with his weekly £5 pocket money and uses it largely to text his friends. "He rarely uses the whole £5 but it helps me to keep a check on what he spends," his mum adds.
Bridget admits to having learned a tough lesson about budgeting from her first son, who is now 18. "I started him on a contract phone but he quickly built up a huge bill - far bigger than his pocket money could cope with - so of course, he eventually had to be helped out."
Bridget isn't concerned that she can't trace who Bradley speaks to and what he downloads on his phone. "It's a case of knowing your own child," she says.Reuse content