Best cell phones for kids

Considering a phone for your child, but not sure which one to choose? Our tech expert fills you in on her favorites.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Pantech Jest 2

Ages: Elementary through middle school

Your little one is begging for a phone. You want to know, "What’s in it for me?" This cute texting phone is small enough to fit in the pocket of those too-tight jeans you wish she wouldn't wear. The Pantech Jest 2 (to date, free with contract at Verizon.com) has a music player so you can reclaim the one she pilfered from you. It also has built-in GPS and mapping so you don’t have to worry she’ll get lost on the way to school. And if you are thinking of adding a line to your Verizon contract, this phone is free — with a two-year commitment. But that's not the only advantage of an in-plan phone. You can also use Verizon’s online parental and usage controls. These not only block unsavory parts of the web, but let you turn the phone off at certain times of day. No late-night texting! No talking during school! Bad grades? No calling at all!

Bottom line: A cute, affordable, texting phone for kids too young for a data phone.

Sanyo Innuendo

Ages: Elementary and up

That text-crazy tween of yours will screech with delight when you hand him this slick phone with a full QWERTY keyboard so he can fire off texts faster than you can think. Flip the Sanyo Innuendo ($79.99) BoostMobile.com, closed to conceal the keyboard and use the sleek, touch-sensitive phone interface. He’s happy and you’re happy. Why? This phone is cool enough for your kid, but mercifully isn't a data phone (though it will connect to the Internet in a pinch), shielding him from the never-ending distractions and hazards of an always-on smartphone. And with an unlimited call, text, and web plan for $50, he can go crazy gabbing and texting without worrying about overage charges.

Bottom line: A slick texting phone with an unlimited plan at a fairly reasonable price.

Nokia Lumia 710

Ages: Elementary and up

Your online “life” may be on email but he’s also on Xbox. And he probably uses Microsoft Office Student when he’s forced to think about school. The Nokia Lumia 710 is his phone because it delivers — right on the home screen — his Xbox Live life right to where he is. It offers mobile versions of the games he loves and sends the messages from his gaming friends right to his pocket. So even if he you force him to endure a mandatory vacation from his gaming console, he won’t have to go out of touch. And it integrates nicely (if he ever notices) with Office, so he could — it’s possible! — access his homework right from his phone. It will at least make missed assignments harder for him to justify. You will like it because it’s durable, he can change the look by snapping on a new cover when he gets a hankering to upgrade, and it’s free with a contract at T-Mobile.

Bottom line: This will keep the gamer in him happy while putting some excellent school tools in his pocket — and it’s free with a contract.

Apple iPhone 4S

Ages: Middle school and up

He got the grades, is star of the swim team, lights up your life, and goes to bed at a reasonable hour. He wants the Apple iPhone 4S (starting at $199 with contract at Verizon.com, ATT.com, Sprint.com) because, he says, it has every possible smartphone bell and whistle any teen could dream of, including an 8-megapixel camera that takes amazing photos. True, the iPhone has a hefty price tag, but the slew of education-minded features help justify the cost. There's an in-phone guru named Siri, who will answer all your teen's questions. Plus, there's a wealth of school-focused apps to help him learn math, geography, science, and languages. He'll also have all his favorite music right there in his pocket. If you're ready to indulge your teen, the latest iPhone is the ticket.

Bottom line: True, it's not cheap, but this all-in-one, state-of-the-art phone is sure to make a kid (of any age) happy — its learning-friendly features will please most parents as well.

HTC Radar 4G

Ages:Middle school and up

Have a teen who is as good a student as she is social? Because the HTC Radar 4G ($99.99 with a contract, T-Mobile.com) has the Windows Phone 7.5 operating system your whiz kid can work right on her phone. Plus, this pocket-able, lightweight, affordable cell will connect your social butterfly seamlessly to her peeps, letting her snap a 5MP photo and send it to friends; a glance at the screen brings her up-to-date with everyone in her circle. She can even watch TV or Netflix. And the 8-hour battery life won’t have her scrambling for a charge just as her social life unravels. Oh, and she can use it to make calls, too.

Bottom line: Writing capabilities, social connectivity, and 4G speeds, in a small package — all at a reasonable price.

LG Lucid

Ages: Middle school and up

If your teen or tween is ready to step up to a data phone, the LG Lucid is a great starter Android phone. The interface has been simplified to make finding your way around easier. But it has all the features — a great phone, access to the Google Play Store for educational apps and games — she loves about your smartphone. And she’ll be sure to get every inch of functionality out of it because it has step-by-step tutorials on features right on the phone. Polaris Office is installed, too, so she can even do a little schoolwork on the bus on the way to school. It all runs on the super-fast 4G network so she will never go offline. If you think she’s ready, she's certainly game. It’s all in a package that slips easily into her pocket for $49.99 with a contract.

Bottom line: A great beginner’s Android smart phone. Requires a 4G data plan.

Motorola Triumph

Ages: High school and up

Got a teen who uses the Internet as a second brain? The Motorola Triumph ($230, VirginMobile.com) is a good option for the kid who has a hard time remembering assignments, schedules, how to get home, or where she left her homework. A smartphone can help keep her on track, in the right place, and able to reprint her homework wherever she lands. You also won't have to commit to two years of monthly fees. Best of all, unlimited data plans start at $35 a month with enough talk minutes for all but the chattiest Cathy. Plus, she'll get a world of features: a big-screen, fast processing Android system with access to apps that can help her keep track of her schedule and homework, Google maps navigation, two cameras (front facing for video calls and back facing for shooting), an HD video camera, and HDMI output so she can use it to play video on a TV (when there's one handy).

Bottom line: A high-end Android smartphone at a reasonable price without a pesky two-year contract.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.