The decision to give a child a cell phone, and at what age, is a personal one for each parent. Nationally, the average age at which kids get a phone of their own is 10.3 years. One thing experts agree on is that later is better. Once you open the door, it can be very difficult to close.
I get that. I’m learning about kids and device addiction the hard way. My 8-year-old daughter is attached to her iPad at a level that I think is unhealthy. I admit that I regret allowing her to own a tablet at such a young age.
Society sometimes disagrees, and puts pressure on kids and parents to get on the phone train before they’re ready.
“If they’re going to public school, then middle school is probably good. Most of their classmates will have them.” Richard F.
“We waited until 13 for both girls. It wasn’t easy. The school secretaries would always give my oldest a hard time for not having a phone (she would ask to use the office phone to call me).” Michelle G.
The best way to decide whether it’s time to give your child a phone is to break down the factors that go into that decision and weigh the pros against the cons in the context of your own family’s needs. Know what you’re getting into, from both a functional and a social perspective.
The best kind of phone for a kid
Smartphone addiction is a thing, and the Internet can be a dangerous place. Some parents opt to start their kids with a dumb phone – one that doesn’t give access to web pages, social media sites, streaming sites and so on. Phone calls only.
Plenty of other parents go straight to a smartphone, which has some of its own advantages. GPS tracking tells you where the phone is, and that can give some parents a level of comfort. Plus, iPhones and Androids alike can be locked down with various parental controls.
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Set limits on your child’s cell phone
As the parent, it’s up to you to set clear limits, make them known, and enforce them.
Decide in advance what the consequences will be for broken phone rules, and follow through.
On and off hours
Cell phones have the potential to interfere with bedtime, and even to disrupt your child’s sleep during the night.
Phones can be a serious distraction during the school day, and they can prevent your child from focusing on responsibilities at home in the evenings. Consider an app or parental control that allows you to shut off the device at certain times.
Phone time takes away from face-to-face time and can interfere with family relationships. That can be true for phone users of any age. Consider the culture you want to nurture in your home.
We have a no-phones rule during meals, and screen time on any device (games or movies) is not allowed before 4pm.
“I don’t think any of the kids I know younger than high school who have phones know how to keep themselves from being distracted by them. I have a hard enough time myself.” Jennifer N.
Behind the wheel
Once your child is a teen, you’ll face the clear and well-documented dangers of using phones while driving. Texting, posting and phone conversations have all been shown to cause people to drive as if they’re drunk. One-third of all accidents are caused by drivers using a phone to text or call. Teens can figure out pretty quickly how to disable “driving mode” on their phones.
The best way to ensure compliance is to enforce the no-phone rule behind the wheel with 100 percent consistency for a long time before you let the child drive with the phone but without you.
Social media platforms and other apps that are accessible from a phone, including when mom and dad aren’t around to supervise, are breeding grounds for digital aggression, cyberbullying, hate, and the pressure to live up to our perception of others’ lives as portrayed on social media.
A 2016 study found that most kids are getting their first social media account between the ages of 10 and 12. That’s despite the fact that the minimum age for adult social media sites, like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, is 13. The Vine app is for users 17 or older. Faking an older age is not only lying, it’s also dangerous. It’s not likely that a responsible parent would want her 12-year-old daughter to represent herself on the Internet as an older teen. We adults fully understand the implications. Don’t let your better judgment escape you when your pre-teen boy or girl begs for an account.
Keep your child off social media platforms that are designed for adults until they are old enough to meet the age requirement. Once they get there, you’ve got a whole new parenting issue to research.
“Social media is not a very safe place. There’s bullying, you get kids posting suicidal thoughts. Ask yourself what their impulse-control level is, how emotionally vulnerable they are.” Carol T.
Texting and sexting
Here’s a news flash you really won’t want to read. An author who surveyed more than 70,000 children found that sexting began, on average, in the fifth grade. Pornography consumption began at age 8.
Yes. Kids are taking, sharing or viewing images that qualify as pornographic, using a smartphone as the tool. This is a cultural reality, and you might come to regret it if you assume that your child won’t get wrapped up in it in some way. He might never view or send an inappropriate image, but since there is a chance that inappropriate content may become available to him, your job is to head off that content or be prepared to respond if it appears.
“They’re sexting each other. They use the phones to transmit porn shots of each other (meaning if it’s in your house, you could be charged with possession of child pornography).” Carol T.
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Apps that can help you
Don’t be surprised if your child struggles with impulse control. The part of the brain that controls it doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our 20s. You’re not a bad parent if you find out your kids are doing things with their phones that you don’t know about (whether they are bad or good) or haven’t given permission for. Most parents don’t know about everything their kids do, whether on a phone, a computer, or anywhere else.
But you can set some controls on your child’s smartphone to limit what they can do and when they can do it.
Some devices have parental control features built in. On an iPhone, navigate to “Restrictions” in the device’s settings. Many apps, like Qustodio, OurPact and Family Time, are available to help you monitor and control the device at the level you’re most comfortable with.
“We gave a phone to our daughter halfway through sixth grade but we made it so that she can only communicate with us and a few selected adults.” Kate W.
The reason to give your kid a phone
Before you offer your child a phone of her own, make sure there’s a reason to do so other than the joy you feel any time you give her something she really loves. It may be a matter of delayed gratification for both of you, but stand firm until the time is right for your family.
Many families love being able to reach each other any time.
But the places your child goes may have a no-phones rule so you might not achieve your communications goal anyway.
When we break it down, potential drawbacks to giving your child a cell phone can be greater than the potential benefits. Give your child a cell phone when your justification is compelling enough to outweigh the benefit of waiting even longer.
“We gave our son his phone in the 6th grade as he started walking to and from school and we wanted him to check in when he got home. We no longer had a landline so it was also important in case of an emergency.” Fara Z.
Kids and phones checklist
- Does your child need a phone?
- Are phones allowed where your child goes?
- Is your child too impulsive to be able to put it away when she has to?
- Is your child ready to take responsibility for the phone and not lose it?
- What limits will you set?
- Does your child struggle with following your rules?
- Have you discussed with your child what kinds of photos are okay to take and share?
- Have you discussed with your child what to do if he sees online bullying behavior?
- Have you learned about parental controls and apps?
- Will you track your child’s location by GPS? Do you understand the downside of activating geolocating services on the phone?
- Are you willing to check the device regularly to see what the child has been doing?
- What consequences will you impose when the rules are broken?
- Are you willing to take the phone away if the situation calls for it?
- Do you model the phone behavior you want your child to have?
“Whenever it works for you! My daughter was 7 and we took a lot of flack for it. But my mother in law wouldn’t let us talk to my daughter when she was with her. We decided it was appropriate. I have friends that are divorced and they felt it was the right time. You decide. It worked great for us and my daughter has been so responsible.” Laura L.
Here’s a sample Family Rules contract that you can use with your child, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page. And always have the password to your child’s devices.
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Kimberly Rotter is an editor at Haven Life and a consumer credit and personal finance expert. She has one child and finds that most days usher in a brand new parenting challenge.