“Can I have a phone?”
Those five little words are just the start of a major conversation that all parents need to have; it’s an inevitable question that’s often complicated to answer. Unlike a shiny new toy or expensive pair of sneakers, cell phones are more than just a passing trend. They quickly become a part of our everyday lives and denying their importance (even to an eight-year-old) can feel hypocritical — they no doubt see you using a phone every day.
Though there are several reasons to be apprehensive (inappropriate content, data overages, and stranger danger are a few of the obvious risks involved), there are also several reasons why a parent might want to give their child a phone sooner rather than later. For one, cell phones can provide a means of communication for kids who walk or take the bus to school. And, of course, there’s the edutech aspect — apps and mobile devices allow kids to play spelling and math games that make advancing fun.
But when should a kid get a phone? Truth be told, there’s no “right” age to give your kids their first cell phone — every child is different and every parent will have their own opinion on the matter — but there are some key things to consider and a few actions you can take to determine whether or not your kid is ready for the responsibility.
Consider this: texting
Many data plans come with unlimited text messaging, which can lead to non-stop typing in the car, at school, and at the dinner table. Some of this can be prevented if you lead by example, but there are other ways to establish these rules, too. Before giving your kid their own phone, assess whether or not they understand what is and isn’t appropriate cell phone behavior — and whether or not they’re happy to follow your technology rules.
Ask this: Is your kid able to express what they like about texting? Does your kid follow basic rules, like 30-minute time limits, without complaints?
Try this: Set kids up to chat with a few trusted people on your device — you can even give them their own signature (like their name, followed by an emoji) — to monitor the tone and frequency of their texts.
Consider this: app access
With so much available at the tap of a finger, a visit to the app store can quickly get expensive. Has anyone else found a surprise $100 charge on their credit card? Family sharing plans can help you control what kids download, but they can’t control what kids ask for, so it’s important to determine whether or not you trust them to make smart choices with their own cell phones.
Ask this: Does your kid often refuse to turn off their video games when asked? Is your kid prone to begging for in-app purchases?
Try this: Rather than letting kids download everything they want, limit them to just five apps at a time (if they want a new one, they have to delete another). This can help limit screen time and test self-control.
Consider this: selfie mania
Many parents struggle with the idea of giving their kids access to a camera. On one hand, it allows kids to express their creativity, but on the other, it presents an opportunity for them to share photos and videos unsafely. Before giving kids their own cell phones, discuss the types of photos that are appropriate and determine how they can best share these images with friends and family.
Ask this: Why does your kid want to take photos? What does your kid like to take photos of? Who do your kids want to share these photos with?
Try this: Give kids unfettered access to your camera phone for one day. Afterwards, ask them to explain which photos they would keep, which photos they would delete, and which photos they would share, if given the chance. The more you understand their motives, the better equipped you are to have a conversation with them about what is and isn’t okay.
Consider this: privacy
Because privacy is such a big concept, it can easily be glossed over — parents use the word, but often struggle to convey what it means to kids. The moment your kids start asking for their own devices, privacy should become an ongoing discussion and safeguards should be put in place.
Ask this: Does your kid know how to create online accounts? Does your kid ask for permission when they want to try a new app or game? Does your kid know that their name, address, and school should never be shared?
Try this: Translate privacy policies into more child-friendly terms and educate kids about how their information is used online; kids won’t know the risks if they aren’t properly communicated.
Consider this: stranger danger
Does your child think everyone on the internet is who they say they are? If so, they might be overly trusting and quick to overshare with “friends” they’ve met while playing video games and using other apps — especially if they have their own device to communicate with.
Ask this: Who does your kid want to text? Is your kid willing to share their messages with you?
Try this: Children are usually quick to pick up on the concept of stranger danger in real life, and it’s up to parents to verbalize that it’s no different in online environments. If you’re not sure how to approach the topic, these kids books can be a great starting point.
Consider this: the domino effect
A phone isn’t just a phone — it’s a portal to music, TV, books, YouTube videos, and more. No matter your kid’s age, you should be able to trust that they’ll make good decisions when not-so-appropriate subject matter makes its way onto recommended lists of content.
Ask this: Does your kid talk about what they watch online? Do they tell you when they’ve accidentally seen something inappropriate?
Try this: Maturity plays a major factor in this — if you have a six-going-on-16-year-old, it can be difficult to explain why certain content isn’t right for them. So, rather than just saying no, create an opportunity (e.g. regular check-ins) for them to talk about their online activity: what do they like or dislike, what makes them uncomfortable, what do they want more of?
When kids ask for a cell phone, they expect to get a quick, yes-or-no answer. But it’s not that simple. That’s why, before making a decision about your kid’s first cell phone, it’s important for you to assess how your kids interact with technology and talk to them about their expectations. These considerations and techniques can help guide you, but ultimately, only you and your kids will understand when they’re ready.
Photo Credits: Rido / Shutterstock, Syda Productions / Shutterstock, Y Photo Studio / Shutterstock