Once considered high-tech and even exclusive gadgets, cell phones and smartphones are now thought of as must-have communication tools. A walk through a school proves that cell phones have become as common in the hands of children as they are in adults.
For parents, "safety first" is often the mantra driving the decision to get kids a phone. There's comfort in knowing your child can keep in touch anytime and anywhere. But parents also might have concerns about issues that can come with cell phones – phone addiction, sleep problems, privacy concerns and cyber bullying top the list. So, how can you determine when your child is ready for a phone?
The right age for a child to get a phone
One recommendation picking up steam is "Wait Until 8th," a campaign urging parents to hold off giving children a phone until eighth grade. According to Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, that's a great recommendation – but it shouldn't be a hard and fast rule.
"Age shouldn't drive your decision," explains Dr. Westers. "Ultimately it depends on your child's maturity and responsibility level. Is your child responsible enough to take care of a phone? Are they going to be able to use it appropriately, interacting with friends and posting on social media?"
If you’re unsure if your child is mature enough, Dr. Westers suggests starting out with a flip phone or more basic phone without data that lets your child get in touch when necessary.
"That gives children the opportunity to show they can use it responsibly and not lose it," he says. It is reasonable to expect some pushback from your child, however, because a basic phone may make them feel different from their peers who might already have a smartphone. “If you choose to start with a more basic phone like a flip phone, set a reasonable timeframe, such as one month, for them to demonstrate responsibility,” suggests Dr. Westers.
Guiding responsible cell phone use
No matter what age you decide is best for your child, it's important to be proactive about discussing your family's rules surrounding the phone. Setting limits, such as putting it away at dinner, in class and at bedtime, for instance, helps build good habits, or “digital health.” Dr. Westers adds that you also need to be clear about the consequences of not following the rules, too.
"Establish that having a cell phone is a privilege and that you, as a parent, have the right to take it away if rules are broken," encourages Dr. Westers. "It can be helpful to set a definite but reasonable timeline for how long they'll lose that privilege ahead of time."
Like all communication tools, a phone can cause big problems if used irresponsibly, so you also need to set expectations about good digital etiquette. Don't assume your child knows the rights and wrongs of communicating via text and social media. Have frank discussions about not sharing personal information with strangers and using kind language, for instance.
Dr. Westers says those conversations also should delve into monitoring cell phone use.
"Parents might want to periodically check what's on the phone and what their child has been accessing," he says. "But be proactive and talk about it with your child beforehand."
He cautions parents to draw the line when it comes to tracking their child's phone, however. "Tracking the phone gets into trust and privacy problems," says Dr. Westers. "Trust goes both ways in relationships.”
Dr. Westers says the best way parents can teach children to use their phones responsibly is by showing them.
"Model the behavior you want to see out of them," he suggests. "Make sure what you're saying in a text or a post is something you'd say to someone face-to-face.”
How much phone time is too much?
For all the good cell phones offer, they can also become a bad, time-consuming habit. Phone addiction waves common red flags: your child begins disregarding the family rules about the phone, uses it irresponsibly, such as texting and driving, or is constantly on or checking it.
"It's important you use the consequences you've set," says Dr. Westers. "Enforcing a mandatory social media break can also snap an overuse cycle and show them how much time they were spending on sites."
He says parents can fall prey to bad phone habits too.
"If issues with the phone come up with your child, look at how you're using your phone. Are you being a bad example, continually checking the phone or giving it your attention rather than the people you're with?" asks Dr. Westers. "Be an example of responsible phone use."
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children’s Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.