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Kids with cell phones: How young is too young?

It's a question parents have debated for over a decade: At what age should their kids be allowed to have their own cell phones?

The reality is that most kids have mobile cellular devices well before high school.

John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, commissioned a study in 2012 that found nearly 60 percent of parents said they offered cell phones to their children at ages 10 or 11. Since then, that average age has gotten even younger, and the prevalence of cell phones among teens and pre-teens has nearly doubled, said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and senior director of research at the Consumer Electronics Association.

"Today about 80 percent of teens between 12 and 17 own a cell phone, and about half of those own a smart phone," said DuBravac. "That's about twice the rate from just two years ago."

Some carriers, like Sprint with its "WeGo" device, are marketing cell phones to kids as young as five: "It's not uncommon to see, really, two and three year olds becoming quite fluent with using a touch tablet or a touch device," DuBravac said. "So by the time they turn 6, 7, 8, they're very comfortable with the mobile devices."

But how young is too young? Consumer experts recommend a case-by-case approach.

"Are their kids responsible enough to have a phone when they are, maybe, 8?" Breyault asked. "Or do they need to wait a little later to make sure they know the responsibility that comes with having a phone? So that could be 13, 14, maybe even older.

"...This is an age group where they are doing a lot of activities outside the home, things like sports practices, after-school activities, going over to friends' houses, some of them going to the mall on their own," he went on. "So most parents we surveyed said they were getting the phone so the kid could stay in touch with them."

And though critics abound who believe cellular technology is driving a stake through face-to-face interactions, DuBravac made the case that in an age in which families are often strained for time together, such devices can act as a relationship resuscitator: "Parents I've talked to generally love that their kids have cell phones because they can text them when maybe a call wouldn't work, they could get a note out," he said. "I know students will often send photos of reports or grades that they've gotten to their parents."

Experts recommend that before allowing their children to have cell phones, parents should have a conversation with them about "digital hygiene" practices: staying within data limits, avoiding inappropriate content, and steering clear of privacy risks and cyber-bullying.

"Kids learn by example," DuBravac said. "So they're gonna follow the way you use technology. We encourage parents to use technology wisely, for example if they're in the vehicle, especially if they're driving."

And in the spirit of back-to-school season, teachers, too, will be tasked with staying alert and up to speed on the technology that kids may be bringing into the classroom.

"Many school administrators are wrestling with this problem now," Breyault said. "Certainly having a little computer right in your pocket can be a powerful incentive to try to cheat on tests for example... this poses new questions for them. Do they need to make sure the cell phones stay in book bags or in lockers for example?"

Meanwhile, some school districts are embracing the cell phone craze, installing technology like smart boards, which allow classroom content to be digitally accessed on smart phones or tablets. DuBravac encouraged a "forward-looking" approach for school districts as more kids come wielding mobile devices.

"The use of technology among teens and preteens has always been a storyline," he said, "whether it was the use of portable video games in the 80s or even calculators in the 60s and 70s. So schools have always looked at how technology can be and should be integrated into the curriculum."

Breyault agreed mobile technology offers the potential to be an asset in the classroom: "They know that they have these devices, they know that they're on them constantly," he said. "So certainly there are vast upsides to putting technology and cell phones in the hands of kids and letting them use them in an educational context. But like with any other tool, you have to make sure that it's used appropriately."

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.