While you’re at it, Santa, please add unlimited data, texts and call minutes.

Do your children dream of receiving water balloons and unicorns for Christmas? Get real. Most intermediate- and secondary-age children and plenty of littlies want to find the latest iPhone under the tree. While you're at it, Santa, please add unlimited data, texts and call minutes.

Those kids and their phones are giving parents a collective nightmare.

The idea for this article came from a contact at Vodafone who wanted to point out that Vodafone-branded phones are the third-biggest seller in New Zealand, after Apple and Samsung.

My children were duly lent two Vodafone handsets to try: the $149 Smart prime 6 and the $299 Smart ultra 6. Even I was surprised at how good these mid-range phones are compared with my reasonably new Samsung S5.

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After five minutes using the new phones the children's initial thoughts were, "This is just as good as an iPhone" from the child with the lower-spec model, and "I can't believe this is so cheap" from the child with the more expensive one.

The big technological hurdle seems to be whether or not the phone has 4G, which these new Vodafone mobiles have. My children's existing phones are 3G, so upgrading to 4G was a big leap forward.

Another important point about a new mid-range phone compared with an older iPhone or Samsung is that the modern ones run the latest apps and graphics.

The only problem I came across with Vodafone versus Apple or Samsung when I put myself in a teenager's shoes was that all-important accessories aren't in as abundant supply as those for trendier phones. Nonetheless it is possible to buy acceptably priced plastic and tempered glass screen protectors and a variety of cases on Trade Me and AliExpress.

The telling question about the two Vodafone devices was whether children's hearts would sink at the sight of a cheaper phone under the Christmas tree in the same way mine did one year circa 1970 when I received an old-style doll instead of a Barbie.

The answer is that my children would be delighted to be the owners of these two phones. But that's with the experience of having tried them out. Plenty of other kids want or even expect nothing but the best.

But the reality is plenty of children live with basic or old-model phones despite claims that all their friends have iPhones or Samsung 6s. Inquiries in my extended circle determined that children's school bags are where old family iPhones go to die.

One friend's son lives without a phone at all because he wouldn't be seen dead with the iPhone 3 on offer. Another boy moaned to me in front of his father - a senior telecommunications employee - that he was given an ancient flip phone.

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The youngsters who do have the latest technology have often saved up and paid for it themselves, which is commendable.

One friend argued that we're living in a digital world and he wanted his children to have the latest technology for that reason. He noted as well, as did others, that once you give a child the latest technology the rate of screen smashes and lost phones drops dramatically.

Of course, the hardware is only half the problem. Connection plans have to be chosen. Telecos like many retailers play a game called Confusopoly.

"Free" this and that blinds us to our real needs from a plan.

I cornered a fellow personal finance journalist recently after he recommended a $59 basic "family package", with a $29 charge for each extra phone, adding up to $146 a month for a family of four. Easy, but ouch on the wallet. That's nearly three times what I spend a month.

My personal baseline is the Skinny monthly combos. For $16 a month the adults get unlimited texts, more than enough data and abundant New Zealand and Australia calls. I've never run out, but keep my background data restricted. For $9 a month the children have unlimited texting, 100Mb of data and 30 minutes of calls.

My "buy them the latest mobile" friend argued passionately that children and teens should have unlimited data. He has a point. Limiting them, on the other hand, encourages budgeting skills.

In my circle, by far the most popular plans for children and teens are $19-a-month Vodafone deals.

Several have their children on a $9-a-month text/calling Vodafone option. One couple I know who are masters at budgeting have the children on $8-a-month 2degrees packages. For that they get unlimited texting and 60 minutes' talk time.

There is of course Spark, and a number of my Facebook friends' children are on its plans. At an event last month, I suggested to various Spark bigwigs that Skinny (a Spark subsidiary) offers the best all-round deal for children and teens. That went down like a lead balloon: "What about Spotify?" they replied. The Spark plans have "free" Spotify music streaming over data connections. I put "free" in inverted commas because it would cost me $10 extra per month per child over and above their existing plan.

I thought old-fashioned pre-pay was a thing of the past until I started asking around, and found plenty of teens on it - some grudgingly. By coincidence, the Warehouse launched a mega-cheap pre-pay offer last week. Texts are 2c each, 4c-a-minute talk time to any New Zealand network and 6c per Mb of data, with a minimum $10-a-month spend.

Personally I think that basic pre-pay isn't great for children. Some quickly use it up, leaving them out of reach, or they don't use the phone when they could or should because they're worried about consuming their credit. Another potential issue was raised by a friend who noticed her credit-card bills being racked up by a child who was replying "YES" to texts asking if he wanted a top-up, debiting his mother's card over and over again until she noticed.

Another issue with regular pre-pay is making important calls once the pre-pay credit has run out. Children and teens with phones need to have a plan that allows them to call or text specific numbers if they run out of credit.

My kids' Skinny accounts would allow this because they have unlimited texting. The budget $8 2degrees plan allows unlimited calling to other 2degrees phones, which works if the entire family is with the same provider. Other providers allow calls to a specific number after the credit runs out.

Warehouse Mobile says a child could still call 111 in an emergency. Clearly the product manager doesn't have children. I can't imagine the police 111 service being amused by teenage emergencies such as, "I need my black shoes, can you bring them down to the ferry terminal NOW", or as a friend of mine experienced last week, "I've left my pen behind, can you bring me one before my exam starts".

I'm not a fan of on-account deals for children. I've heard many stories of the phone being stolen and huge bills run up, which the child or the parents have to pay.

Check out digi-parenting.co.nz for useful information about parenting in a digital world.