It's not uncommon to see kids walking around school with their own cell phones these days. In fact, according to one survey, roughly 60 percent of children in the elementary school age range alone own a cell phone — although Pew Research Center suggests the ideal age for a child to get their first phone could be 12 to 14 years. Still, the decision ultimately lies with the child’s parents. And whether parents are buying their children their first cell phones at the age of six or 16, experts agree that it's their responsibility to set a positive example and firm rules to lessen the negative impacts — perhaps even leveraging it as a tool to build a stronger relationship with their child.
"How [and when] a phone should be introduced to a child can be confusing for a parent. For some, it might be a basic phone as a safety precaution. For others, it may be a smartphone, which could just be a way of keeping a child occupied. Parents might also relent to the 'But everyone has a phone!' argument. And others may feel their child is old enough, and emotionally ready, to handle the responsibility of using a phone," says Laurie Singer MS, LMFT, BCBA, adding, "Regardless of why a parent gives a child a cell phone, it's imperative that they talk with their children about how they can use the phone [...] and how and when they can't use it."
Not sure where to start? Keep reading for expert advice on the steps to take before (or when) you get your kid their first phone.
Have Boundaries in Mind
Setting boundaries for our children is just part of parenting. But it's no easy task, especially when kids push those boundaries as they test out their growing independence. If you think limiting a toddler to one cookie for dessert is tough, try telling a teen that they can't use their cell phone past 8 p.m. True, tech manufacturers and parental control apps are making it easier for parents by introducing cell phones designed specifically for kids and apps to monitor their activity (and you should!), though all the tech advances on the planet can't make up for the eagle eye and proactiveness of a responsible parent.
Gut Check Your Child’s Maturity Level
That responsibility starts with ensuring that your child is mature enough to own a cell phone. And if you're considering a smartphone, that maturity level will need to be even greater. "Just because your child is a specific chronological age doesn't mean they're emotionally prepared to log into social media sites," says Singer.
It's not only about screen time, but making sure that your child understands concepts like cybersecurity and the mental health risks associated with social media usage and cyberbullying. "Social media can often affect a child's self-esteem, self-worth, and well-being. These effects are exhibited by depression, body dysmorphic disorder, and anxiety. And there can be a direct correlation drawn between cyberbullying and depression among youth," added Singer. Talking to your child about these issues before giving them their own cell phone can help them later identify these situations and feel more comfortable coming to you with them.
Make Phone-Free Time a Priority
Discussing the value of technology-free time is just as important. As kids lean more into technology, they also tend to lean away from traditional social activities, often forming and maintaining friendships and hobbies online. Making sure your child is regularly socializing and engaging in in-person activities and events — and not just glued to their phone all day — can help them find a balance between these two worlds. Doing so can lead to stronger social and communication skills and, often, better academic performance and higher self-esteem.
When getting your child their first phone, you can help establish a healthy precedent by making sure you aren't always on your phone. Kids need to see that downtime doesn't always mean mindlessly scrolling on social media. Sure, there's a time for that! But our kids tend to pick up our patterns, for better or worse, so be mindful of your balance between phone time and phone-free time.
Don't Make the Phone the Villain, Though
Framing technology as a positive thing, versus something you're just going to be nagging them about constantly, can help get things off on the right foot. Therapist and author Courtney Conley, MD, encourages parents to leverage their kid's social media activity as an opportunity to "[...] foster open communication, strengthen relationships, and generate responsible awareness at the same time." Conley notes that making it fun and treating it like a game can also help these efforts, suggesting things like challenging the family to a competition of who can decrease their cell phone time the most over the course of a week, participating in a social media swap where you each follow two of each other's favorite accounts, and finding online games to play together.
Set Clear Expectations
When you're ready to take the leap and give your child their first cell phone, both experts agree that talking about the responsibilities, setting a media plan or "contract" to keep them on track, and limiting access are necessary first steps. Sure, you might get a ton of eye rolls and I know!!!'s, but Conley says parents can always "[...] gradually increase [their] child's access as they grow and understand the pros and cons of technology and social media."