By Eric Braun, coauthor of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give
Probably the one thing I wanted more than anything else as a kid was the Millennium Falcon. That toy, a Star Wars spaceship the size of my torso, was the coolest thing I could imagine. To this day, I can’t think of anything I’ve ever coveted as badly as I did Han Solo’s “fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”
Today, of course, our kids want smartphones—more than toys, more than bikes, more than anything. And while I’m sure my parents had some consternation over whether to buy me the toy I wanted, I’m also sure that the decision whether—and when—to get my kids their first smartphones was way harder. The Falcon was expensive, sure, and like the ever-present screens of today, it did threaten to keep me indoors instead of playing outside. But a smartphone puts the internet, with all the good and bad it contains, at kids’ fingertips. The galaxy is not so far, far away anymore—and that’s a scary thing.
My wife and I gave each of our sons a smartphone when they started middle school. We arrived at this decision based on several factors. They were walking to school and a phone seemed like a good idea for safety. We wanted to be able to reach them when they were out. We wanted them to experience some responsibility. And sure, they wore us down. After all, everyone else has one!
That may not be the best reason to take the leap, but according to a 2016 report, we weren’t early. The average age for a child to get his or her first smartphone is 10.3 years.
Every family is different, and obviously your budget is going to be one of your biggest considerations. Smartphones aren’t cheap, nor is the added cost to your monthly phone plan. Beyond that, if you’re wrestling with the decision, there are a few questions to think about.
What Are the Pros and Cons?
There are plenty of good reasons to get your child a phone.
- Convenience. Staying in touch doesn’t get much easier.
- Safety. If your kids walk to school or take a subway or bus, knowing they can call you in a pinch provides some peace of mind. And you can reach them if needed, too.
- Social interaction. It’s probably true that (nearly) everyone else has a smartphone, and responsible cell phone use can be a great way to stay in touch with friends.
On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to be wary.
- Social interaction! You probably have heard about the dangers of cyberbullying, but even beyond that, constant texting, posting, liking, worrying about getting likes, and so on can create a high-pressure atmosphere that is consuming and stressful.
- Unfettered access to the internet. It’s super easy to stumble across inappropriate material, whether kids are looking for it or not. There are ways to limit access, which I’ll get to below, but no system is perfect.
- Increased screen time. Experts say that kids spend about seven hours a day on screens. That’s too much according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. When we give our kids smartphones, we’re only opening the door to more screen time.
- Potential for disrupted sleep. Pediatricians report that an increasing number of their patients are seeing their sleep disrupted by cell phones. Four out of five kids who use smartphones keep them near—or on—their beds. Sleep is important for kids and teens.
Is Your Child Ready?
There’s really no right age for a child to get that first phone. Every child is different, and maturity and responsibility are more important than a number. A smartphone is a powerful tool that allows kids to create content such as text, photos, and videos and upload it to the web, so it’s important that our kids have responsibility to match their tech savvy. Ask yourself:
- Is your child generally responsible?
- Do you think your child can and will use the phone responsibly at school (not texting in class or using the phone to cheat)?
- Does she lose her belongings often? A smartphone is one expensive belonging.
- Does he obey family rules? Keep promises? It’s important to know that kids will comply with phone use guidelines you establish.
- Does she understand the permanence of anything uploaded to the internet? And how easy it is for anything sent via phone to become public?
What Are the Rules?
If you decide to buy a phone, establish guidelines for use. Besides restricting adult content, these guidelines should include when kids can use their phone as well as what apps they’re allowed to use and what websites they’re allowed to access. Many families begin with these rules:
- No phones during mealtime.
- No phones during class.
- Turn in phones to a parent one hour before bedtime.
- Don’t take anyone’s photo or video record them without their permission.
- Answer a parent’s calls and texts right away.
- Don’t respond to calls or texts from unrecognized numbers.
- No sending inappropriate content or texts.
- No personal conversations in public places.
- If your teen is old enough to drive, no using the phone while driving.
I recommend being fairly strict with restrictions from the get-go; it’s a lot harder to instill new rules later on if kids have gotten used to, say, sleeping with their phones under their pillows.
Some families make a cell phone (or “wireless”) contract laying out the rules that everyone signs. Here’s an example from the wireless trade association CTIA. And here’s an interactive Family Media Plan maker from the American Academy of Pediatrics that you can go through with your child to make your individualized agreement. Fill it out, print it, sign it, and hang it somewhere you’ll all be reminded of it regularly.
How Will You Set Up Restrictions?
When we bought our first son’s phone, there wasn’t much you could do to restrict content, but times have changed. The iPhone and most other phones now have robust parental restriction tools. You can control what apps kids can download and use, you can turn off in-app purchases, and you can restrict explicit content in music, movies, and TV shows.
You also have a lot of freedom for controlling their web use. Block adult websites, block specific websites—or block all websites and allow only certain exceptions. Here’s a video from Common Sense Media on how to do it all on an iPhone.
You can also set up monitoring services on your kids’ phones, some of which are described here, and you can set up a schedule on most routers to turn off wi-fi at certain times to help enforce your rules.
By the way, it’s important to be upfront with your kids that you’re doing this. That way they won’t feel like you’re spying on them. Rather, it’s part of the bargain: They get to have fun with this cool tool and they get the social connectivity that comes with it, but ultimately it is yours. That means you share open communication about usage, and you have final say about usage. Meanwhile, they are learning super-important lessons in responsibility.
Finally, remember that you are a role model, so you will want to set a good example. Don’t obsessively check your phone, don’t use it while driving, and put it away at mealtime. Make sure kids see you doing a variety of things with your free time, like reading a book or walking the dog, more often than they see you scrolling Facebook on your phone. It all sends the message that a smartphone is a tool, not the focus of our lives (even though it sure seems like it sometimes!).
Navigating the tricky parenting decisions around smartphones—as well as all the other tech that fills our lives—can be intimidating and exhausting. But we have to embrace these challenges, because tech isn’t going away. If we help kids master good tech manners, make good tech decisions, and find a healthy balance of tech time in their lives, we’re preparing them to be tech-healthy adults.
May the Force be with you!
(I know, you totally saw that coming.)
Eric Braun writes fiction and nonfiction for kids, teens, and adults on many topics. Recently, one of his books was launched into space to be read to kids on Earth by an astronaut on the International Space Station. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, sons, and dog Willis.
Eric is the coauthor of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give.
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