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Just Ask Children's


When Is Your Child Ready to Have Their Own Cell Phone?

A kid lays on a bench with a basketball while using a cell phone.

For better or worse, a kid's first cell phone is a rite of passage as essential to the modern childhood as a driver's license — except it typically happens much younger, and with zero training.

It's natural, says psychologist Justin Michener, PhD, director of program development for Intensive Psychiatric Services at Children's Hospital Colorado, for parents to have questions about getting a cell phone for their child. Should I get my kid a cell phone now? Should I wait? What should the rules be? How can I keep tabs?

Five things to consider before buying your child a cell phone

The right decisions will be different for every family, says Dr. Michener, but there are few factors parents can keep in mind:

1. How careful is your kid with their stuff?

Cell phones aren't cheap, so it's worth considering your kiddo's track record of caring for their personal things. If they tend to lose or break things, it might not be the right time for a cell phone.

Even if they do have a good track record, says Dr. Michener, "Set ground rules."

Cell phone ground rules:

  • Who pays the bill?
  • Who is responsible if it does get lost or broken?
  • Are they allowed to buy apps?
  • What if they go way over on data?
  • When can they use the phone?
  • When can't they?

Talk through expenses and expectations beforehand. Agreement on rules now will save a lot of argument later.

2. How well does your child manage screen time?

Smartphones hand your kid a level of access to media they've probably never had — and too much screen time can have adverse effects on young brains. Kids who spend more time on media tend to have poorer nutritional habits, educational success and even sleep. They don't read as much. They're not as active. Additionally, kids allowed to have a phone in their room often spend time on them at night, which can have a real impact on their sleep.

"If your kid loves to play outside and hang out with friends, it may not be as much a concern," says Dr. Michener. "But if you have the type of kid who struggles to stick to limits around screen time, a phone probably won't help."

3. Is your child too impulsive to own a cell phone?

"We're all creatures of reinforcement, and things that are highly stimulating are self-reinforcing," says Dr. Michener. "Cell phones are constantly buzzing, chiming, ringing. Even as adults, we can't wait to pick it up and see what new information there is."

Kids who are naturally impulsive or hyperactive are more prone to seeking out stimulation, and they'll probably have a more difficult time self-moderating phone use. And there are safety concerns: if they're riding a bike or driving with a phone in their hand, they're not going to be paying attention.

4. How does your kid do socially?

Social media and texting represent a new level of social interaction for kids. Are they ready for it? Can they interpret social cues? Talk to your kids and make sure they understand the concepts of social responsibility and privacy — who they can interact with and who they shouldn't — and that anything they do or say on text and social media creates a record that never goes away.

Additionally, parents should recognize that access to text and social media inherently decreases face-to-face communication.

5. Does your kid need a smartphone?

Many parents want their kid to have a phone so they can stay in touch, but they're not as comfortable with their kid having access to apps and internet.

"Buy them an old-fashioned flip phone and you take care of that," says Dr. Michener. "That said, at some point your child is going to be exposed to this stuff." They have access to computers and friends' phones, and while you can limit their access, you can't prevent it.

The upshot: whatever you decide about phones, talk to your kid about it. Explore where they're at with the internet and social media. Talk through your decision with your kid and let them weigh in. "The most important thing," says Dr. Michener, "is to start having those conversations."

Resources

Have additional questions? Dr. Michener recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics' Family Media Plan. This tool lets parents input information about their family's media habits and generates a detailed, individualized plan that touches on everything from social responsibility to cyberbullying.

Commonsensemedia.org lists every possible form of media a parent (or kid) could imagine. "Every app, every movie, every website, with an age-appropriate, parent-friendly rating for each one," says Dr. Michener. Not sure about that app your kid is asking for? Just look it up.

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