Chances are if you’re a parent of a child entering middle school or even elementary school, the question has come up, “When can I get a cell phone?”
And, if your child is like most, she doesn’t mean just any phone; she wants a smartphone.
Figuring out if the time is right can be overwhelming. On the one hand, your child can connect with others, download education apps and you can monitor your child’s whereabouts.
But, on the other hand, the risk of predators, bullying and sexting is a huge concern. It’s a tough call.
According to Dr. Sarah Adams, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics in Hudson, the first thing to remember when taking a trip down the smartphone super highway is to make your decision based on your child – not just age or grade level.
“Maturity and responsibility level are different developmentally for each child,” said Dr. Adams. “The time many start thinking about giving their child a smartphone is middle school or age 12 when there’s a greater need to communicate with one another about schedules and whereabouts. But, more importantly, it’s a time when parents feel their child can handle the responsibility that comes with it.”
Although some studies show children are getting their first smartphones around age 10, down from age 12 in 2012, Dr. Adams encourages parents to consider whether their child can handle the most basic tasks of having a phone – keeping track of it and charging it – before considering a smartphone.
“If your child is struggling to remember her planner or homework for school then there’s a strong chance a smartphone would be too much for her to handle,” Dr. Adams said. “If you’re not sure or have questions about your child’s developmental and emotional readiness, ask your pediatrician for advice and help in deciding whether or not she’s ready.”
Smartphones are also more expensive than an average cell phone so look at whether your child can care for common items like backpacks, shoes and sports gear. If they can display responsibility for these types of items, they may be ready to care for a more expensive device.
“Kids need to understand there’s a cost to using a smartphone, including data limits and fees for going past plan limits,” said Dr. Adams. “They don’t need to out-right pay for the phone but they should be able to show ownership in other ways like doing chores, community service or signing a contract to keep grades up. They also need to understand there are consequences if they don’t keep up with their end of the bargain.”
If your child ticks all the boxes for cell phone basics and responsibility then consider her maturity level and whether she understands the importance of cell phone safety and etiquette.
“Etiquette includes things like no cell phones at the dinner table, no texting in front of other people, keeping texts short and sweet, and knowing not to give bad news over a text,” said Dr. Adams. “Children need to understand that some topics require a verbal conversation since texts don’t show emotion. They need to stop and think before they text.”
Setting rules and parental controls are critical steps to ensuring smartphones are used properly.
Signing a personalized cell phone contract, ensuring parental controls are on and monitoring text messages through apps such as Qustodio are helpful tools parents can use to help keep their kids safe.
“If the time is right to give your child a smartphone, it doesn’t mean give her all access to all things,” Dr. Adams said. “Conversations about information access, the risks a smartphone can bring and why security limits are set is important for them to know. I also recommend creating a cell phone contract between the child and parent. If you don’t think your child will understand the safety concerns or the contract then they aren’t ready for one.”
Clear cut rules about when, where, how and what a child can do with their mobile phones are important expectations to set at the start. A child should be mature enough to follow the rules parents set about usage, understand safety precautions, and handle the consequences for not abiding by the rules.
“Parents need to have access to all communication, internet history and pictures,” said Dr. Adams. “If your child can’t handle sharing this level of information with you then maybe a smartphone should wait. Access to information and friends can be distracting so make sure your child understands that school always comes first.”
Dr. Adams also recommends that kids leave their phones out of their bedroom at night and that parents set a cut-off time for putting down the device.
“Kids should charge their phone away from their heads when sleeping, preferably outside their bedroom so they aren’t tempted to use them and they don’t disturb their sleep,” added Dr. Adams.
As kids get older, Dr. Adams stresses the importance of reminding kids about cell phone etiquette and expectations, abiding by contract rules such as no texting while driving and talking with parents about questions or concerns.
“Parents need to remember to set a good example for their kids and use their own cell phone as they’d expect their child to use it. Children are always watching and listening,” added Dr. Adams.
If you think your child is ready, and you are too, then be ready to buckle down expectations.
“Having a smartphone is a privilege so it’s important that your child is emotionally ready to respect the freedom and rules that come with it,” said Dr. Adams. “Remember to set clear limits and responsibilities, check-in daily with their usage, communicate regularly about risks and safety, set a contract, make sure they know when they should or shouldn’t use their phones and be consistent with these limits.”