How young is too young to get a cellphone?

Companies offer devices designed for young kids

Francine Maze’s 4-year-old daughter already knows how to navigate Maze’s cellphone.

She knows how to get to the smartphone’s application store, and she knows the free games are the ones she’s allowed to pick.

That’s why a growing lineup of cellphones designed for kids as young as 5 years old doesn’t seem like a bad idea to Maze, who besides being the mother of three, is also the owner of A Child’s Place Day Care in McHenry, Volo and Antioch.

Most of the phones have a few big buttons that allow the user to call a handful of pre-programmed numbers and allow parents to monitor its usage and GPS location.

One phone, sold by the company Firefly, has a built-in flashlight and can only receive texts, not send them. Another, called Just5, has an emergency button that when held down, texts and calls five pre-programmed contacts continuously until someone picks up.

“If a child is interested in it and it’s a good thing, a positive thing, I think the child should be exposed to it,” Maze said. “Sometimes I see children being limited by their parents: ‘Oh, he’s too young for that.’ ”

It’s important for young children to get to experiment with all sorts of things and learn the skills that accompany that experimentation, Maze said.

Carla Isenegger, a private preschool teacher with Kids R Kids in Crystal Lake, agrees.

“They pretty much came out of their parents pressing buttons,” she said.

Her son got his first cellphone when he was 11 when he first started riding his bike farther away from the house without supervision, she said.

That’s when most kids get their first cellphone, according to a survey conducted by the National Consumers League. Six out of 10 kids were 10 to 11 years old, while 20 percent were 8 to 9 years old, and 15 percent were 12 years old.

More than half of parents of children aged 8 to 12 have provided their kids with cellphones, the survey said.

But if Isenegger had known about these limited-access phones, she said she and her husband might have considered giving their son one when he was in third, fourth or fifth grade.

“It does give them a sense of independence, a limited sense of independence,” she said. “It’s important because then they feel that they are responsible. They can feel proud. They know that they can make their parents proud by not breaking it or losing it.”

And breaking it or losing it could be a problem for younger children, Isenegger and Maze agree.

“They don’t know how to not lose anything,” Maze said. “They put their crayons down and they lose them.”

That age group is also more closely monitored by adults, which makes a phone unnecessary, Isenegger said.