Is Your Child Ready For a Cell Phone?

(This article is part one in a series)

It’s a question more parents find themselves asking these days, and perhaps asking much earlier than they expect to: when is my child ready for a cell phone?

Over the next few months, we will explore this “phone conversation” with early childhood experts to help you make the most appropriate decision your family.

Most experts agree that by age 12 or 13 a child is able to comprehend the rules of use for a phone and to commit to caring for a phone.  And it is usually the middle grades when children become more involved in social and sporting activities after school, warranting an additional line of communication between parent and child.

But for younger children, such as the budding “tweeners” ages 8-12, when is it appropriate? Or is it appropriate at all?

Sunshine House Chief Academic Officer Michelle Salcedo says there are three questions parents can ask themselves to help determine if their child, and their family, is ready for a cell phone:

1. Is it a need, or a want?

It can certainly be argued that having a cell phone has become a rite of passage for most teenagers and many pre-teens in the modern age. But is it a need?

Salcedo said her son and daughter were in the eighth and seventh grade, respectively, when they got their first cell phones. And, she admits, comfort and convenience played a big role in the decision. But, it was also becoming apparent that a need existed for them to be able to contact her or other family members regarding afterschool plans, etc.

“It is a double-edged sword,” says Salcedo. “It can help cultivate independence, or it can create more dependence. Is the expectation that your child check in with you every hour, or only use it for emergency contact or at the end the day? Is your child so in touch with you during the day that he is not really present in what he’s doing at the moment?

“Independence is also being able to get help when you need it, and a phone can do that. But it should not circumvent other forms of communication, she says. For example, a child texting his mother because he forgot his gym shoes, or to say he’s not feeling well should still follow the school’s rules and make a trip to the school office or nurse’s station.

2. Is the phone for your child, or more for you?

While most parents say concern for their child’s safety is the number one reason they want to equip them with a phone, it’s important for parents to ask themselves if the phone is really for the child’s safety, or for their own sense of security. If the former, then a simple flip phone or candybar phone (i.e. not a smart phone) will work just fine. If the latter, then that’s fine, too. As long as you are honest with yourself about it.

“If you’ve decided to get a phone for your child, you’re going to have a conversation and set parameters for the phone,” said Salcedo, such as types of use, hours of use, data limits, etc. “And you’re going to have to be prepared to take the phone away if they break those rules. If you are not prepared to take it away, then the phone is for you – not for your child.”

3. Are you prepared to replace a phone?

“While conceptually, children ages 12 or 13 may comprehend the rules of the phone, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to follow the rules in certain situations,” Salcedo says. “It doesn’t mean they will never have their phone out in school, or won’t ever exceed their data limit, or that they won’t lose or break their phone.

“So, ask yourself, am I ready for my child to lose their phone, or break their phone? Because there is a very good chance your child will break or misplace his phone.”

One thing is certain, says Salcedo: there is no automatic age at which a child should be given a phone. It is entirely up to the experiences of each family.

(Next month we will discuss what to do if your family has made the decision to give your child a cell phone and the conversations to have with your child before hitting the power button.)   

According to the National Consumers League, here are some questions to ask yourself when considering a phone for your child:

  • Why does your child need a cell phone? Is it primarily to stay in touch with parents / for emergency use? Or for entertainment / communication with friends?
  • Is your child mature enough to keep their minutes, texting, and data use within plan limits?
  • Is he mature enough to use the phone responsibly and avoid viewing or sending inappropriate content?
  • What is your school’s policy on cell phones in school?
  • Does your child have a habit of losing things or can he or she handle the responsibility of caring for a phone?