Children are starting to carry cell phones at younger ages. In a recent study, 22% of kids in grade school reported having their own cell phone compared with 60% of tweens and 84% of teens.
Like many parents, you may wonder whether your child is ready for a cell phone.
As you might imagine, there are pros and cons.
When It Makes Sense
Many parents cite safety as the main reason for giving their child a cell phone. They want to be able to reach their child whenever they need to. They also want to give their child the security of being able to reach them whenever they need to.
This is especially true if your child is home alone after school or walks home alone, says Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, CT.
Brittany Grant-Davis gave her 6-year-old a cell phone after his school bus, driven by a substitute driver, got lost on the way home. Grant-Davis, who lives in a Chicago suburb, says neither the school nor the bus company could tell her where the bus was.
“It was one of the scariest times of my life,” she says.
After a very tense hour, the bus pulled up. Grant-Davis decided to give her son a cell phone to keep in his backpack.
Children who live in two households often get cell phones at younger ages. This is so they can reach the other parent, Greenberg says.
“If the cell phone is truly for accessing their parents or for children in a joint-custody situation who may be confused about which parent’s house to go to, that’s somewhat valid,” she says.
Greenberg says she’s not in favor of a 6-year-old having a cell phone in most other cases.
Weigh the Risks
If your child has a smartphone, they have access to websites that may be inappropriate. They may see content that is violent and could be related to death or sex.
“Lots of kids have fantasies in their mind about things they don’t understand,” Greenberg says.
There’s also the issue of sleep deprivation, Greenberg says.
“Kids with smartphones are tempted to stay awake late into the night playing games and texting with friends.”
Cell phones also bring the risk of cyber-bullying.
“Before, once you got indoors you were safe,” Greenberg says. “But with cell phones and social media, nobody is ever safe [from bullying].”
Kids with cell phones can also become socially isolated, she says. Too much texting and social media means less time with friends in person.
There are other reasons not to give children cell phones before they’re ready.
Some parents are so overprotective of their kids they want constant communication with them without thinking about the potential dangers, says Mark L. Goldstein, PhD, a child psychologist in Chicago. Young kids with cell phones can give out information to the wrong people.
There’s also the risk of fostering dependency, he says.
“If you give kids a cell phone at a very young age, you’ll get calls in the future over all types of things.”
Of course, expense is something to think about, as well. After you buy the phone, you need either a separate data plan or to add your child to yours. How much data they use will affect your bill.
Making the Decision
Your child is ready for a cell phone when they can sit down with you to create guidelines for its use, Greenberg says.
“If they’re unwilling to make this list, they aren’t ready.”
For most kids, this happens around age 12 or 13, she says. Parents should make the decision, not well-meaning grandparents or friends who gift your child with a phone.
“Ask yourself whether your child has good judgment and a history of good decision-making,” Greenberg says. If they are immature or tend to make bad decisions, they aren't ready.
“When they see something frightening, do they handle it well? Do they come to you when something seems out of sorts? Do they have good intuition?” Greenberg says.
Consider why your child wants a cell phone, Goldstein says. Do they want to text friends? Or spend time on Facebook? Do they want a phone because an older sibling or cousin has one?
“Look at your child’s cognitive abilities to be able to use a cell phone appropriately, and more importantly, are they emotionally ready for it?”
Judge the maturity of your child, Goldstein says. Have they shown responsibility in other ways, for example, by finishing homework on time and cleaning their room?
“Those kids may be able to handle a cell phone responsibly at 8, 9, or 10 years old. Some are not ready until high school.” If a child has ADHD or lacks time-management skills, a cell phone could spell trouble, he says.
Tips for Safe and Responsible Cell Phone Use
- Use apps or parental controls that limit who your child can talk to and text and the types of websites they can view.
- Don’t allow your child to load video games and apps.
- Limit your child to a basic phone rather than a smartphone.
- Be a good role model with your own phone.
- Set screen time limits.
- Tell your child you’ll monitor their cell phone use closely.
- Know their passwords.
- Take away your child’s cell phone at least an hour before bedtime and charge it outside the bedroom.
- Talk to your kids about the dangers of sexting.