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Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?

Consider the fine print before you let your child go mobile.

When Are They Ready? continued...

As your child becomes more independent (think middle schoolers or high schoolers), they're closer to needing a phone than younger children whom you still take everywhere.

"Look for the developmental signs," Evans says. "Does your child lose his belongings? Is he generally a responsible kid? Can you trust him? Will he understand how to use the phone safely? The rate at which kids mature varies -- it will even be different among siblings."

And think long and hard about whether your child actually needs rather than wants that phone. "Children really only need phones if they're traveling alone from place to place," Evans says. "Kids in carpools may not need phones, but kids traveling on a subway or walking to school may. It's about who they are as individuals, what's going on in their lives, and how much they can handle, not a certain age or grade."

Monitoring Your Child's Phone

Should you check who your child is calling and what she's tweeting?

Absolutely, Knorr says. "I know that kids consider mobile devices to be personal property," she says. "And they don't want their parents snooping around. But I think parents are justified in saying, 'I understand this can be used for good but it also can be misused. So every now and then I'm going to check to make sure you're using it responsibly and respectfully.' Then make it an ongoing dialogue: 'Have you gotten weird texts?' 'Any calls that made you uncomfortable?' 'Who are you texting?'"

But you might want to skip the GPS locator services. Neither Knorr nor Evans recommends them unless your child is showing a pattern of getting into trouble.

"Most kids don't need GPS trackers on them," Evans says. "That's really feeding on our anxiety as parents more than meeting a true safety need."

"The issue is really about educating children how to use cell phones in appropriate ways," Evans says. "Cell phones can definitely be beneficial, as long as you know your individual child."

6 Cell Phone Rules for Your Kids

If you decide your child is ready for a cell phone, set the ground rules first.

  • Buy them a basic phone: Yes, you can still get a phone that doesn't include a camera, Internet access, games, and texting. If you're passing one of your phones down to your child, turn off all the extra features. And if your child complains, remind her that phones are tools, not toys. "It's about safety, not social status or games," Knorr says.
  • Set limits: Most cell phone companies allow you to cap the number of texts a user can send or receive as well as the number of minutes the cell phone can be used. If a child goes over the designated plan amount, have her pay the extra charges. (Older teens can be responsible for their entire cell bills.) You also can block Internet access and calls from unapproved numbers on most phones.
  • Set more limits: Designate times that the cell phone needs to be turned off -- for instance, during family meals, after 10 p.m., and during school hours. If your teen is a driver, insist that he or she not use the phone when driving. Some families don't allow cell phones in children's rooms at night to keep kids from texting or making calls after bedtime. Insist that your child answer your calls and texts right away, and teach your child not to answer or return calls and texts from people they don't know.
  • Follow the same limits yourself: Let's face it: You have to walk your talk. If you don't want your child to use the phone during meals or while driving, follow those rules yourself. If you don't want him or her to compulsively check the phone, don't do so yourself. You are your child's No. 1 role model, whether your child admits it or not.
  • Create some distance: For now, until the radiation risks are clearer, Moskowitz recommends using ear phones instead of holding the phone up to the ear. Also, don't let kids sleep with their phones under their pillows. He also advises against carrying cell phones in front pants pockets, due to a potential radiation risk to the reproductive system.
  • Teach good behavior: Children aren't born knowing the rules about how to use cell phones respectfully, including not using them to spread rumors, not taking (or sending) photos without people's permission, not sending inappropriate photos or texts, not having personal conversations in public places – and, of course, never communicating with strangers, no matter how they present themselves. It's up to you to teach them.

CTIA, a wireless industry group, has a sample contract on its web site for family rules on cell phone use.

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Reviewed on July 18, 2012

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