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Publication #FCS7241

Teens and Media Use: Cell Phones—What's the Plan?1

Michael S. Gutter, Selena Garrison, and Marina Fayer2

Cell phones have revolutionized the way people interact and communicate. It seems like almost everyone has one. It has even gotten to the point that people are canceling their landline phone services and only using cell phones. However, cell phones can be quite expensive, and this is part of the reason they have become a concern for budgeting. It is advised that you shop around and compare prices to find the cell phone and plan that best fits your needs. There are many plans, options, and providers available. Do your research to make a sound and informed decision.

Given the increasing integration cell phones are playing in our lives, finding the right phone and the right service provider is an important issue for parents and teens. Phones today have more and more features. Features such as texting, talking, and tweeting are now all a part of the adolescent experience. This is an excellent opportunity for families to discuss these issues. Parents can establish ground rules and a budget. Teens can think about the things they want versus the things they need on a phone. So where do families begin the dialogue?

The Phone

Start by identifying what your teen wants or needs in a cell phone, and define your own terms, too. According to an AT&T survey administered in LA and NY, 94% of parents agree that cellular phones are good for teens. Many parents want to know that they can call their teen at any time to make sure they are safe and okay. Currently, 25% of cell phone revenues come from teenagers with 1/3 of all teenaged people carrying cell phones in the United States.

There are some benefits to teens having cell phones:

  • Young people can learn valuable lessons in responsibility, accountability, financial management, and understanding of bills and contract guidelines. In order to do this though, it is important to speak to your teens up front and set out rules before they receive their cell phones. Since cell phones can be costly, you may decide to have your child pay for his/her own cell phone, or contribute in some way to the costs, particularly where overages or specific features are concerned. The most common features are listed in Table 1.

  • Most teens want high-tech cell phones capable of web browsing and text/instant messaging plus cameras for picture messaging, but these may all be additional ongoing costs to your plans. Also, consider the effects that cell phones may have on your teen's life. Keep in mind, too, the potential dangers of cell phone use, such as being on the phone while driving, which can be the cause for increased accidents. Talk to your teen about boundaries and phone use privileges; make sure to mention consequences for overstepping those boundaries as well.

  • Table 1. 

    Some common phone features


    What is it for?

    QWERTY Keyboard

    Unlike traditional phones with three letters per number key, QWERTY keyboards have full computer-type keyboards with letters ordered in the same way as a standard computer or typewriter keyboard. As with a standard keyboard, the first six letters from left to right are Q-W-E-R-T-Y. The layout of QWERTY keyboards generally allows for faster typing/texting.

    Touch Screen

    This allows you to navigate through cell phone options and applications by touching icons on your screen instead of using the directional keys on your keypad.

    MP3 Player

    This allows you to upload and play music files (those with filename extension .mp3) on your cell phone.

    Internet (Broadband access)

    This allows you to browse the Internet, use Internet-enabled programs, and check email on your cell phone.

    Global Positioning System (GPS)

    This allows you to get turn-by-turn directions from one place to another on your cell phone. Some phones allow someone to find the phone's location on an online map using its GPS.


    This allows you to enter and keep track of appointments.


    Bluetooth allows you to exchange data wirelessly over short distances between your phone and other devices.

    Camera and Camcorder

    These allow you to take still photos and record videos on your phone.

    Microsoft® Windows and Office

    This means that the phone operates using Windows Mobile®, which is attractive to people who may want to have more communication between their phone and their PCs. These will often synchronize information by USB connection, Internet, or Bluetooth. This often means that documents, spreadsheets and presentations can be viewed and edited on the phone.


    These may use a different operating system than Windows® phones but still allow for synchronizing between the phone and one's computer. A common brand is Palm®. By synchronizing online or with a computer, it will provide the ability to backup information stored on your phone.

    Push Mail

    This feature allows users to get email sent to their phone. This is most commonly associated with BlackBerry devices but many smartphones have this feature to help users stay in touch.

    Add-on Applications

    In addition to the applications described above, some phones allow users to add additional applications. Examples are numerous and include anything from games to scanner capabilities.

    In-App Purchase

    Within the apps (such as games or utilities) there may be add-ons or extra features users can unlock for different dollar amounts. One can also usually receive additional resources in many games for varying prices. These should be limited to prevent a $0.99 app from becoming a $9.99 purchase with all of the upgrades. These can occur over time.

The Plan

Suggestions to help you choose the right plan are to:

  • assess your needs,

  • think about the features that you may want,

  • and compare prices and different plans, looking at other options provided by various cell phone providers.

When choosing a cell phone carrier and plan, make sure to consider contract terms and limitations, charges, and costs. Some companies may offer you a free phone in exchange for signing a 2-year contract with them. Ask key questions:

  • What are the basic charges?

  • What are the charges for texting and data?

  • How many minutes are allotted under each plan?

  • What are the additional charges for various features?

  • What are the charges for going over the minutes or text messages covered in your plan?

You should know the terms and conditions for the following items:

  • How many minutes you have on your plan and for what services

  • When your free nights and weekends begin and end

  • Rollover minutes

  • Whether you can call certain people for unlimited minutes (e.g., mobile-to-mobile, my 5, etc.)

Some additional basic plan terminology to consider includes the following plan types:

  • Stand-Alone Plan: allows for an individual cell phone account

  • Companion Plan: allows more than one person to share the plan, such as sharing the minutes

  • Local Unlimited: includes unlimited local and incoming calls, and charges for long distance calls

  • Prepaid Plan: you pay for only a certain amount of minutes so that you can use minutes up until they run out

Whatever phone you decide on, your plan should reflect the features available on the phone. For example, if your phone has a keyboard for texting or email, you want to be sure your plan has a good rate for these uses. Otherwise your charges could be much higher than anticipated when the statement comes each month. Likewise, if your phone has camera features you may want a plan that allows you to send pictures or videos to others.

The two charts (Tables 2 and 3) in the next section will help you organize your thoughts and preferences regarding cell phone features and cell plans. Parents and teens should discuss the results of these charts and use this information when visiting the store or shopping online.

Cell Phone Features and Plans Checklists

Next to each feature in Tables 2 and 3, check if you need it, want it, or neither. Then compare your checklist to the plans and phones offered by different providers to decide which option is best for you.

Table 2. 

Cell phone features - a checklist

Phone Features

Need it

Want it


QWERTY Keyboard


Color Screen


Touch Screen


MP3 Capabilities


Internet Capabilities


GPS Capabilities


Streaming Video Capabilities






Microsoft® Windows Capabilities


Push Mail


Add-on Applications




Table 3. 

Cell phone plans - a checklist

Plan Features

Need It

Want It


Multiple people on one plan


Unlimited anytime minutes

*If "neither" figure out how many minutes you will need and write the number here: _________


Unlimited night and weekend minutes


Unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes

*Usually applicable with companion plans


Unlimited Text Messages

*If "neither" estimate the number of text messages you will need per month and write the number here: __________


Unlimited minutes to specific phone numbers of your choice

*sometimes referred to as "Friends Plans"


Rollover Minutes


Data Usage (Internet, email, etc.)


Free long distance


Free voicemail





Lenhart, A., Hitlin, P., and Madden, M. (2005). Teens and Technology. (Online). Available at

Palen, L. and Hughes, A.(2007). When home base is not a place: parents' use of mobile telephones. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 11(5), 339 – 348.

Peterson, N. (2008, November 21). Technology Changing Way Teens Think. 2008 eXtension (Online). Available at

Electronic resource retrieved from AT&T. Retrieved May 1, 2009, from



This document is FCS7241, one of a series of the Department of Family Youth and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date October 2009. Revised October 2012. Visit the EDIS website at


Michael S. Gutter, associate professor/financial management specialist; Selena Garrison, graduate student; Marina Fayer, undergraduate student; Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The use of trade names in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information. UF/IFAS does not guarantee or warranty the products named, and references to them in this publication do not signify our approval to the exclusion of other products of suitable composition.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.