Is Your Child Ready for a Phone? A Parent Guide

One of the questions I get most from my clients is “When should I get my child a phone?”  As parents  we always want what’s best for our children and in today’s world that means grappling with the often confusing and frustrating dance around screen use. If the question of when to introduce your child to the world of smartphones is weighing heavy on your mind you’re not alone.

Maybe your child has been nagging you incessantly about getting a smartphone for months and you’re feeling ready to give in. Maybe you feel you’d like to be able to stay in touch with your child now that they are becoming more independent and going out on their own. Maybe it just seems like everyone else is giving their kids phones so you probably should too. Whatever the reason, the first thing to consider above all else is whether your child is ready for the enormous responsibility that comes with being a smartphone owner. Once you give your child a smartphone you are entrusting them with a very expensive/powerful/potentially addictive device that will change their relationship to the world around them (including you) forever. Let’s look at some things to consider both before and after you give your child a phone.

 

Is your child ready?

There are a few things to consider about your child when deciding whether they are ready to own a smartphone. Some questions you might ask yourself about your child’s social and emotional readiness: How does my child do with social interaction and close relationships? Is she kind, honest, relatively secure? Does he often feel jealous, easily swayed by peer pressure, excessively emotional when faced with conflict? Once your child has access to texting and social media their peer relationships will take up more space in their lives and all conflicts will be amplified, so make sure your child is as well equipped as a tween can be to handle these sorts of situations.

Another important thing to consider is how responsible your child is. Do they complete their homework in a timely manner? Are they good about chores? Do they help others in the community? Can they stick with their after school commitments? Phones have a way of co-opting all the free time in our lives, pushing our responsibilities to the background. A child with less ability to self-regulate and maintain self-discipline will suffer more from the inevitable pull of their smartphone.

Be honest with yourself when assessing your child’s readiness, you’ll be doing them a disservice if you rush them into this.

 

Is your child missing out on meaningful social situations because of not having a smartphone?

In general I believe it’s best to wait as long as possible before giving your child a smartphone. There is quite a bit of research showing that tweens (age 10 - 13yrs) seem to have the hardest time regulating their smartphone use, often falling prey to the negative effects of social media and online bullying. You know your child best and an honest assessment should help you decide whether they can handle the pressures. If your child has reached a point where all of her best friends have phones and are texting, snapping and posting to Instagram while she’s left out, it might be time to start considering a phone. Connecting via smartphone is part of how kids interact, socialize, make plans and foster friendships. There is just as much evidence that NOT giving your child a phone once they reach the appropriate age can be socially limiting and isolating. If you’re on the fence, try giving your child access to friends through your phone first, that way they can stay in touch without the responsibility of managing their own device.

 

So you’ve decided to get the phone, now what?

Once you feel confident that your child is ready to try a smartphone it’s time to get prepared.

  • First, set the phone up in a way that is comfortable for you and appropriate for your child. You will have to decide whether you want any parental monitoring apps installed*, but regardless, you will want to go into the parental controls setting in the phone and customize how and when the phone can be used. Make sure all App downloads come through you first whether free or paid for.

  • Have a few conversations with your child about both the positives and negatives of owning a phone. Make sure this is a conversation, not a lecture, and be sure to hear their point of view. During this conversation you’ll want to make them aware that you may be monitoring their use while they are getting their sea legs as a way to help them navigate tricky situations. Make it clear that you don’t plan on spying!

  • Create a smartphone/media use contract for your family. This contract is something that you will sit down to craft together and will all (yes, parents too) be accountable to. My favorite resource for creating a family media use contract is thesmarttalk.org. The Smart Talk makes putting a contract together easy and customizable.

  • Explain to your child that you want them to ease into their phone use and decide together on one social media app to start with. Make sure your child always shares passwords with you and let them know that you’ll be following them on social media but promise not to comment.  Explain to your child that as they get more comfortable with the phone and show that they are able to handle the responsibility you’ll pull back on the monitoring.

 

Keep the conversation going

It will likely take your child some time to get a hang of how to balance their offline life with this new exciting online life. Expect mistakes and missteps and let your child know that they can come to you if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. You are your child’s best resource. Be present, keep the conversation ongoing and stay tuned to your child’s social and emotional wellbeing. Giving your child a phone is a huge change for both of you, but with guidance, supervision and time your child will learn how to find balance and wellbeing in our constantly connected world.

 

*A word on monitoring Apps. There are various choices out there and you’ll have to do your homework. I am not a proponent of spying on kids as I think it can build resentment and lack of trust. That said, many Apps these days do a great job of enforcing time and content limitations and simply notifying parents of any suspicious or malicious content that passes through the phone (Bark &  OurPact and two that I like). For a new phone user this can be a great way to ease them into independence while having you there to watch their back and make sure they’re safe. Think of it as training wheels - you want them on there until your kid finds their balance and then you can remove them.