If your kid tells you they’re the only one of their friends without a smartphone, they might be right. On average, kids are now getting their first devices at 10 years old. The peer pressure to get one can be overwhelming. Of course, you don’t need to give in -- parenting is all about setting limits, even if it makes you unpopular. But most parents find it’s an inevitable purchase.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for the age when a child is ready for a smartphone. Many experts support delaying the purchase as long as you can, since the devices can be addictive once they’re in a kid’s hands. But parents can weigh a few factors when they’re making the decision, like their child’s maturity and the family’s needs.
Before handing over a phone, here are some things to consider.
Why does your child want one?
Let your child make the case for a smartphone, says pediatrician David L. Hill, MD, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. He’s also the dad of five kids ages 12-18, who all have devices.
“ ‘All my friends have one’ is probably not an adequate answer,” Hill says. “You really have to ask, what is my child going to use the phone for, and is there really a compelling argument? ‘No’ is an OK answer.”
You can also consider your own needs. For example, if your child often walks home alone, a smartphone’s location-tracking feature may give you peace of mind.
Is your child ready?
Start by asking yourself some questions: How responsible is your child? Can you rely on them to answer when you call, or call at an agreed time? Can they follow etiquette and safety rules, like no sexy selfies? Do you trust them not to lose or break a smartphone?
To test the waters with a younger kid, you might try giving them a more basic device that only allows texting and calling. If they don’t lose, break, or misuse the phone, let them upgrade to a smartphone.
What are your rules and limitations?
“One of your greatest concerns is that if they’ve got a smartphone, they’ve got pretty much the entire Internet at their fingertips, and you have to decide how you’re going to monitor what they’re doing and how you’re going to help them use this tool in a responsible way,” Hill says.
Let your child know you’ll be monitoring what they text and post. Talk about which apps are OK for them to use. You may want to have a rule that no app gets downloaded without a parent's permission. For younger kids, use parental settings to put app downloads behind a password.
Central Florida dad CJ Robinson and his wife recently got their 15-year-old daughter a smartphone. (She had been asking since kindergarten.) They know all her passwords, and she can only follow or connect with friends she knows in real life. There are several apps she’s not allowed to use.
“We want it to be seen as a tool, and she knows that tool can be taken away just as easily as it was given to her,” Robinson says.
For younger kids, you can use apps and settings that let you monitor texts, limit downloads, or restrict the websites they can visit. If you use these, be honest with your child about what you’re doing and why.
What are your family’s no-phone zones?
Smartphones can lead to shortened attention spans, less time outside, anxiety, and poorer communication skills, says Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, PhD, an associate professor of communication studies at Widener University in Chester, PA. They can also keep kids from spending enough time being active or getting enough sleep, which can affect their mood and their physical health.
Before you give them a phone, it’s a good idea to talk about how much time they should spend on it and why it’s important to choose to put the phone away and do something off the screen for a while.
Meal times, the bedroom, and during homework are good places and times to restrict phone use. At Robinson’s home in Winter Springs, FL, the family turns in all electronic devices at night, even during sleepovers. He turns off the Wi-Fi at night when their children’s friends stay over.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers an online tool for parents to make a family media plan customized for each child.
“It’s critical to protect some time to look at each other and have real conversations. And if you’re paying the phone bill, you get to help set those ground rules,” Hill says.
The good thing is, parents typically find their kids are highly motivated by the prospect of losing smartphone privileges. “When you say the phone is off in 5 minutes or it’s off for the next week, it’s off in 5 minutes,” he says.
Practice what you preach. “Believe it or not, children do model parental behavior. If parents are on cell phones during dinner, you can bet children will be, too,” DeWerth-Pallmeyer says.
Besides setting rules, encourage your child to participate in activities where phones aren’t allowed, like sports, band, or scouting, DeWerth-Pallmeyer says. “Getting them to connect with parents and peers in person may be the best way to engage them in life outside the constructed reality of the cellphone world.”