ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A year ago, the locks on Darlene Haecker's door froze and her fifth-grader couldn't get into the house after school.
A neighbor happened to see the girl in tears and called Haecker at work. When she got home, the St. Paul mom headed straight to the mall to buy her two children cellphones.
"I told them we would never be in that situation again," Haecker said.
A year later, she uses the phones daily to text her kids and track their whereabouts. "Honestly, I don't know how we'd survive without them, now."
In the past several years, mobile phone use has grown quickly among elementary- and middle-school-age children as parents buy phones for safety and to arrange their busy lives. "Thirteen" is now the answer most parents give when asked the appropriate age to buy children a phone, according to the research firm Yankee Group. And many are buying phones for kids even younger.
Nearly one in five children ages 6 to 10 have a phone, according to the research company YouthBeat. By the time kids are 12, well more than half have their own phone, a number that has doubled in the past five years.
Parents are buying phones for kids who come home alone on the bus, for tween girls starting to baby-sit at houses without landlines and for arranging rides when children start extracurricular activities.
"The major reason we see is for after-school activities, like sports or band," said Justin Priest, AT&T's director of sales for the Upper Midwest. "It's really to arrange transportation. The child can call and say, 'We're done early,' or 'We're going to be done late. We need to be picked up at such and such a time.' "
Children's use of cellphones also has become more common as carrier plans make it relatively inexpensive, often $10 a month for a second line.
"This is not just a societal trend. This is the mobile carriers marketing to parents," says Carl Howe, a mobile-industry analyst and research director for Yankee Group. "Carriers are saying, 'Your child needs a phone,' and they're making it economically viable."
And, like most parenting decisions, deciding whether and when to buy a phone has no one right approach.
Alexis Lomen of St. Paul bought an extra cellphone when she dropped her landline and wanted her then-4-year-old to have a phone available when she left him with a baby sitter. When her son was in first grade, she caught him sneaking the phone to school to show off, but she let him carry it around because it gave her peace of mind.
Now age 9, Lomen's son rode his bicycle by himself last summer to swimming lessons at an athletic club a few blocks from home.
"It was helpful that when he got there, he could call me to let me know he was there," said his 35-year-old mom. "He was really needing that independence from me."
As a divorced parent, Lomen also uses the phone to keep in touch with her son while he is at his father's house. When he's with her, he'll email dad photos of math worksheets to get help on homework.
The downsides to giving a child phone that early?
"Young kids, they don't know how to take care of stuff," Lomen said. Her son sometimes forgets to charge the phone, has dropped phones, lost phones and once left a phone in the rain. He incurred $50 in charges when he didn't realize the text messages he received offering ringtones were not offering them free.
And, on occasion, he sends impulsive texts, pitting mom against dad.
"I'll ask him to clean his room. He'll refuse and text-message his dad and say I'm being horrible," Lomen said. "And then his dad calls me and asks what's going on. I'm like 'How did you even know this?' He'll say, 'He texted me.' "
Some families see the phone almost exclusively as an emergency tool.
Autumn Amadou-Blegen bought her daughter a phone last year, when she was in fourth grade, in case of a mix-up about who was supposed to pick her up at the bus stop.
"When I was a child, I had several neighbors who were home during the day, and I knew I could always go to the house next door or across the street," Amadou-Blegen said. "But those days are gone, and in the wintertime, I didn't want them wondering what they needed to do if they got off the bus and nobody was there."
Researcher Howe believes an even more pervasive and widespread concern about child safety is driving cellphone purchases.
"Parents worry about how safe their children are at school," Howe said. "We just had Virginia Tech blow up again. There may not be more actual danger, but there are more perceived dangers. And parents see a technical solution to the problem - staying in touch."
Ironically, even as the cellphone alleviates some concerns, it raises others, ranging from "sexting" to mobile bullying.
"Parents want the security of the cellphone, but they're leery of the trappings of a cellphone," said Verizon store manager Mark Koopman, who has taught several of the wireless carrier's "Smart Phone Parenting" workshops at the Mall of America. "The overall concern is how their child is going to use it. Are they responsible enough to have texting and photo capability?"
Amadou-Blegen addressed her worries by writing a contract for her 10-year-old daughter, who shares the phone with an 8-year-old sister. The contract includes basic safety rules - don't give your phone number to anyone. She requires the girls to get permission before calling friends and sending photos. And they may answer incoming texts and calls only from friends and family members whose numbers are loaded in the phone.
"Usually, it goes unused," said Amadou-Blegen, who tracks her daughter's minutes. But the phone came in handy recently when school let out early and her girls walked from their bus stop to the rec-center program they were supposed to attend, only to find the building closed.
"That was a perfect example of when it was helpful to have the phone," Amadou-Blegen said. "They walked back to the house and called me, and I came straight home."
It turns out the rec center was actually open, but the phone served its purpose.
"I just wanted her to have some way of getting ahold of an adult."
Even if parents get the phone for emergencies, they usually end up using it to arrange the details of daily life, and the kids end up using it to text their friends.
One parent said she uses her kids as "office assistants" in the car. They use their phones to text dad about dinner plans or confirm who is driving tomorrow's carpool.
Parents accustomed to instant communication with other adults are looking for the same updates from their kids.
"I know so much about what my kids' days are like because they text me," said Haecker, whose daughter was locked out of the house. She bought phones for her children when they were in fifth and eighth grade. "It's a connection to them. For those people who don't have that, I just wonder what they're missing out on."
Her daughter has texted her just to say she's had a rough day.
"I'll text back, 'I love you,' " said Haecker. "And if that soothes her and makes her feel calmer and better on an hour bus ride, well, that's the best $20 I spent that month."
Like a lot of parents, Haecker noticed that social use of cellphones jumps in seventh and eighth grades. Her son, now a freshman, easily sends 1,000 texts a month - many of them to mom, to let her know how he did on a test, ask if he can bring friends home for dinner or let her know football practice is running late.
She thinks giving a kid a phone is important, so that parents can monitor and shape their cellphone behavior.
"Eventually, they're going to be out in the world on their own, so it's better to teach them yes, there is such a thing as a cellphone and these are appropriate things to do with one, and these are inappropriate things to do."
The rules are simple: Her kids pay for any lost cellphone, they keep it charged and they always answer mom's texts and calls.
Among the inappropriate uses? Texting late at night, at the table, during face-to-face conversations and, it turns out, during a sister's dance performance - which is how her son recently lost his phone for a day. Her kids also know she can read their texts anytime.
Parents generally welcome texts from their kids, but sometimes hearing from the kids can border on intrusive.
During a recent date night, Rick Logan and his wife received a text from their daughters, ages 10 and 12, two hours past bedtime, asking whether mom and dad were having a great time.
"I called the baby sitter and said, 'You don't know this, but they have their cellphones in bed,' " Logan said. " 'Please go take them away.' "
Logan agrees with Haecker that a phone can teach responsibility.
"Part of me sees them as a 21st-century pet," he said with a laugh. "You have to take care of it. You have to keep it charged, or it's no good."
As smartphones become more common among high school students, few parents are buying iPhones for elementary school kids. Internet-enabled phones aren't the norm for middle-schoolers, either, if only because the data plans are expensive. But that doesn't mean parents aren't considering the fun factor. Deborah McLaren surprised her son with a phone last Christmas. It doesn't surf the Web, but he can play games on it, and he uses it to take photos of cool cars. He has a collection of more than 70 car photos he shot while out and about.
"They make phones like toys, now," McLaren said. "That's what he was interested in - the camera and music and games." The fact that it communicates is a bonus, but not the primary reason he got it.
While many parents are getting phones for kids, plenty of parents are holding out. At one extreme are parents who have no intention of ever buying their child a phone.
"A phone is not necessary for my children to have," emailed St. Paul parent Amber Rahn. "When they are able to get a phone in their name only and afford the plan monthly without my assistance, then they can have one."
Many parents are conflicted, as shown by a recent exchange on the Capitol Hill parent Facebook page in response to a post from a mother who had not bought a seventh-grade daughter a phone and asked, tongue-in-cheek, "Are there any other parents out there depriving their seventh-graders in such an abhorrent manner?"
Responses included "put us in the meanest category" from a mom who didn't get a phone until her son was a senior in high school; parents who lent their kids a phone on specific occasions and the family who planned to wait "until they can drive.
Trying to decide when to buy the phone can be complicated, especially if a kid is asking for one, like Camille Scheel's fifth-grade daughter.
"She's been begging since first grade. Of course then, we were like, no way! It wasn't even a conversation," Scheel said.
But recently, Scheel started asking other parents when they bought a phone.
"Parents whose kids have cellphones at age 10 or 11, it seems like there is a really good reason," Scheel said. "We haven't found kids in her peer group who have cellphones just because they want to text with friends, and that's why she wants it."
Kathryn Kysar's son is among a minority of eighth-graders who do not have phones. He keeps up with friends on his computer. His mom is usually home when he gets home from school.
"He's 13, and he's at a transition point," Kysar said. "By ninth grade, he'll probably want one. And at that point, we'd talk about who is going to pay for it."
St. Paul parent Sandy Benson says her sixth-grade daughter would like a phone, but she hasn't gotten one because mom doesn't need her to have one.
"I just don't want the distraction for her," Benson said. "It's about trying to focus her. I'm not against it, but if we don't need it, why get it? I'd like to at least get through sixth grade."
Benson expects she might get one next year when she gets a full-time job and her daughter starts middle school. Meanwhile, there's always another way her daughter can call home: she'll borrow one
"Someone else always seems to have a cellphone," Benson said.
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.