Phone Conversations: Is My Child Ready For A Cell Phone?

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?

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:

  • Is it a need, or a want?
  • Is the phone for your child, or more for you?
  • Are you prepared to replace a 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.”

Phone Conversation Starters:

If your family has made the decision to entrust your child with the responsibility of a phone, it is time to have a conversation laying out expectations for its use.

The answers to these questions will vary from family to family, and there are no right or wrong answers. However, before your child walks out your door with an expensive and powerful piece of technology in her pocket, it is important that you are both on the same page as to how it should be used.

  • How many minutes/how much data is your child allotted in your plan? What happens if they go over this limit?

“Many children cannot connect an abstract idea like minutes/data usage with their usage, especially when friends are texting and social media is beckoning,” says Salcedo. “Come up with a method to help them track their usage throughout the month. Also help your child understand the difference between accessing the internet using cellular data and Wi-Fi and clarify your expectations around this topic.”

  • What are your expectations regarding additional expenses?

Can your child download free or paid Apps? Is he allowed to purchase content such as videos, music, or the ever-popular ringtones?

“Young people are easily pulled into these purchases and don’t really see the impact of small purchases made over time – but, they add up quickly and you will see it in the bill,” Salcedo says.

  • What are the parameters for the use of the phone?

“Help your child understand when and where it is appropriate to use the phone. Should she let a friend use the phone? Should she carry it on her during school hours or leave it in a locker? Is the device for emergencies or contact with family only, or can she give out the number to friends?”

  • What are the consequences for losing/breaking the phone?

Does a broken/lost phone mean no phone for some time? Will the child be expected to pay to replace the phone, through chores or money from a job? Or, as a parent will you replace it?

“No matter your feelings about this situation, you need to be ready for it to occur,” Salcedo says. “There is a very good chance that your child will break or misplace his phone. But, knowing these consequences ahead of time may lead him to be a little more careful in using and keeping track of his phone.”

  • What is your child’s school policy about having/using cell phones?

Many schools have policies banning phone use during class hours. Some teachers are looking for ways to creatively integrate the use of personal devices into the classroom. “It is important that your child understand the rules and that she is ready to follow them.”

  • What are your expectations about appropriate use of the phone regarding accessing content?

“Having the internet in a pocket can open up a world of inappropriate content for a child,” Salcedo says.  “It’s important that you are honest about what he might find and what you deem as acceptable and unacceptable content.”

Instant messaging and social media sites also tempt young people to make poor choices in the words or pictures they send to others. Help your child understand that everything he sends may not only be viewed by their intended recipient and that data exists forever.

Which brings us to the next and final question:

  • What should your child’s expectation of privacy be regarding his/her phone?

Do you plan to access your child’s phone on a regular basis to see how it is being used? Are you planning on tracing your child’s movements through a tracker App or GPS? Or, are you of the belief that her phone is her personal property and you respect her right to privacy?

“Either way, your child deserves to know your approach to this topic,” says Salcedo. “Knowing ahead of time sets your child up for success and may help them avoid trouble. Such as, ‘Sorry, I can’t skip school – my mom tracks my phone and would know I’m not here,’ instead of feeling like you are playing ‘gotcha’.”

Did you know?

Studies have shown that exposure to screens in the 30 minutes before a person goes to sleep can make it harder to go to sleep and can make sleep less restful.

Young people who have screens in their room also often report that they go to bed later as they are distracted by the entertainment and social connections available to them.

Consider banning the phone from the bedroom on school nights until you know your child can balance the presence of the screen with meeting his physiological needs.