With Christmas here, many parents are wondering if they should finally cave and give their child a smartphone. It’s a tough call these days with all of the incoming news of kid anxiety and mental health. So, what’s the best — or “right” age for your kid to get a phone? What is your decision to get a phone for your child based on? Is social pressure leading you astray? What kind of phone should you buy? And what parental controls are available to keep them safe?
There are lots of questions when you’re looking at plunking down for a phone and adding it to your family’s monthly tab.
THE RIGHT AGE
There doesn’t appear to be a magic age for when to get a kid a smartphone, yet according to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group focused on responsible media use, by age 11, upwards of 53 percent of kids have one.
Middle school marks a big transition for kids — and the kids feel the pressure all around them to own a smartphone. Moms and dads feel it too, and the conversations begin. Common Sense media says age isn’t as important as maturity, though, so the decision should be based on a kid-by-kid basis. Evaluate your child’s readiness by asking yourself questions about your child.
• Is he responsible enough? (Does he get his homework done? Is he responsive to your requests? Does he take care of his personal items?)
• Do they already keep other devices, such as tablets, charged?
You can also look at whether there is a real need for your child to have a smartphone, such as being able to reach him if he’s on a sport’s travel weekend without you or if he walks home from school. Lots of parents go back and forth with their kids via text all day — it’s the new parenting realm — providing reminders about family schedules, birthdays and such.
Of course, if your children aren’t asking for smartphones many say it’s worth it to not buy one for them. Once you give a kid a smartphone, the competition for their attention begins.
The world of kids is a pressure cooker of social this-and-that. Once one popular kid has a smartphone all the rest of the kids start thinking they want one, too. Today plenty of elementary aged kids have them, but experts advise against kids that young having smartphones.
Why does your child want a phone? Is it for a good reason? (And while you don’t like it, it IS true that kids want to fit in, even as much as adults do).
Sometimes social pressure comes from school clubs and sports teams. Sometimes social pressures happen among parents trying to keep up. And in school, the focus on digital this and that practically makes a smartphone a necessity at younger and younger ages. But you don’t have to cave if you don’t want to.
Parents of little kids will often band together with like-minded families to hold off as a group. An organization called Wait Until 8th lets families pledge together not to give kids smartphones until eighth grade. To ensure a lasting effect, the organization requires at least 10 families from a child’s grade and school to sign up. Parents can still sign the pledge if they give their kids a phone that can only text and call.
Be open with your kids about your real concerns about everything that phone ownership means.
“Talk about their digital footprint, which starts with iPads and computers but grows even more with smartphones,” says Mariah Bruehl, author of Real-Life Rules: A Young Person’s Guide to Self-Discovery, Big Ideas and Healthy Habits ($18; Roost Books). “You can do a search on yourself and show what comes up: the people you follow, comments you’ve made on posts or articles. Make sure your child understands that everything you do online — comments, likes, posts — stays with you for years to come,” she adds.
Picking the Phone
It’s helpful for all of your family members to be on the same system, be it iOS or Android, experts say. That way you can more easily message one another, share calendars, set up parental controls and more. Apple has Family Sharing and Screen Time controls for families with iPhones. The Google Family Link app works for those with Android phones (and Chromebooks).
When you link your kids’ phone account to yours you can set screen-time limits, choose which apps you want them to have, approve purchases from the App Store and the Google Play store and track their location, although that’s another subject altogether.
If you do buy your child a new smartphone, consider a protection plan, or at least a rugged case. The number of kids walking around with cracked cell phone glass is practically a running joke: If you show me your’s, I’ll show you mine.
Teaching Responsible Use
Deciding on the right phone for your child is a step in the right direction, but before they power up for the first time, experts say you should talk with them about your expectations for its use — and what will happen in the event the phone gets damaged, lost or misused. Your ground rules should include no usage in your bedroom, courtesy in treating others and openness to you about cyberbullying.
You might even consider drawing up a contract with your child. You can find a Family Media Agreement at Common Sense Media here.