A child's starter cellphone needn't be top of the line

The era of child cellphones is gone. A 3-year old can understand how to use an iPhone better than some adults and, because of that, cellphone makers quickly learned that no kid wants a Fisher-Price-looking plastic phone.

Children want the phones Mom and Dad have. They want to text easily, upload videos to YouTube, check Facebook and take quality photos. But do they need to have the most expensive, top-of-the-line phone? And how do you avoid surprise bills because someone talks or texts too much?

Before shopping for your child's cellphone, ask the carrier what plans it offers to monitor usage and parental control settings. Controls can help track where a phone is or limit what time a phone call or text can be used. Controls can also block adult websites, downloads and purchases, and block unknown numbers from calling or texting. Most controls are free, but some features cost around $5 a month for some carriers.

Establishing limits can help keep kids out of trouble at school. Many schools do not allow phones to be used during school hours, but they are allowed to bring phones for use after school. So, which phone to get?

There's no question that an iPhone with AT&T or a phone that runs Google's Android operating system (available at all major carriers) is the most desired type of phone right now. And having access to the latest technology helps enrich and inspire young minds. But you don't have to pay top dollar for the newest model, especially if this is a starter phone.

For example, the iPhone 3GS, which is a year old, is $100 -- half the price of the iPhone 4. And Verizon is offering the Palm Pre Plus, a touch-screen smartphone with apps and a slide out touch screen, for $50 -- and it's only 5 months old.

Carriers have lots of free phones -- and they aren't all embarrassing "clamshell" flip phones. Many offer free new phones if you buy one that is refurbished, such as the Backflip from AT&T, which is geared toward teens who love to text and check social media.

If you want a starter phone for a child in elementary school, avoid the high fees of smartphone data packages and stick with a simple flip phone.

But if you're looking for a good starter phone for a 'tween or teen, here are a few good messaging phones to consider that are on the cheaper side.

Sprint's LG Rumor Touch: $29.99; Features: Comes in blue, red and purple. Three-inch touch screen and full keyboard that slides out. Has 2-megapixel camera and video recorder.

Verizon's Samsung Intensity: Free; Features: Comes in black or red and has a 1.3 megapixel camera. Has a number pad on the front and a slide-out keyboard.

AT&T's LG Neo n: Free; Features: It has 2-megapixel camera with zoom and a slide-out keyboard. It doesn't run on AT&T's 3G network, so it can feel slow.

T-Mobile Samsung : $20; Features: Has a 1.3-megapixel camera with ability to take shots in quick succession. Has slide-out full keyboard.