Sooner or later, it’s a dilemma every modern parent has to face: When is the right time to buy your child’s first cell phone? As you’re no doubt aware, this milestone moment is occurring earlier and earlier for many children; believe it or not, one 2015 survey found that the average age for kids to get their first cell phone was 6 years old (!). But do 6-year-olds really need cell phones? And how can you tell if your child is truly ready?
We asked Brian Sands, child safety expert and chief marketing officer of the mobile security app My Mobile Watchdog, to weigh in on when to make this first purchase, and how to help kids handle the responsibility. First of all, Sands (who is also a dad) said it’s important to remember that nowadays, a phone is more than a status symbol or pricey toy — it’s actually oftentimes a very necessary means of communication.
“Gone are the times when a kid would wait around 30 or 40 minutes for their parent to pick them up after school,” he told CafeMom.
“Now, Mom and Dad are both working and the first thing that happens when something comes up or there’s a change of plans is they go to their cell phones to try and get in touch with their child.”
That said, Sands still think parents should try to hold out for a little while, at least, before getting that first phone.
The Ideal Age for Getting a Cell Phone
“We’d like to see parents wait until their kids are 10 or 11, but what we’re seeing is mostly 7 or 8,” he said.
More from CafeMom: 10 Rules Kids Should Agree to Before Getting Cellphones
The thought of a second or third grader with a smartphone might seem ridiculous, but as long as both parents and kids follow some simple guidelines, the situation can be manageable — and even beneficial.
Keeping Your Kid Safe
The most important thing to consider, said Sands, is who your child is communicating with on a daily basis — whether that’s via text, chat rooms, social media apps, or even good old-fashioned conversation. Services like My Mobile Watchdog and others allow parents to access text messages, call logs, and contacts, and to block websites and apps; many smartphones are also equipped with built-in parental controls that can help you to make sure your kids aren’t being targeted by predators or exposed to inappropriate content.
“Don’t wait until there’s an incident to get parental controls,” warned Sands. “The controls should be a requirement for your child having the device.”
Another requirement to consider, said Sands, is a cell phone “contract” (drafted by you and signed by your child) detailing what constitutes acceptable usage.
More from CafeMom: Teen Wakes Up to Find Cellphone on Fire in Her Bed
“You can get an agreement from your child about how they will participate in digital safety, and educate them about what digital safety is,” he said.
Some issues to address on the agreement include what to do if someone sends a sexy photo or text, how to respond to spam, asking for permission before downloading any apps or making purchases, and when cell phones need to be turned off and/or put away (during dinner, at bedtime, etc.).
Whether or not a child understands and is able to agree to these terms is a good indicator of whether or not he’s ready for a phone of his own. As for the specifics of the terms, such as how long at one time a child should be allowed to play on his phone, those will depend on the individual.
Accepting & Limiting Screen Time
“One kid might be at their limit after half an hour of screen time, another might be okay with three hours,” said Sands.
And while it might seem, to most parents, as if your child is never not on his phone, it’s important to remember that there’s more going on than meets the eye.
“Of course real-time social and physical activities are the most important thing, but games and applications are now an integral part of social activity, too,” he said.
“Parents fight their kids being on the phone all the time, but some studies actually support online activity helping otherwise introverted kids.”
Plus, there are other benefits to your child’s having a cell phone, such as being able to locate him through tracking apps or contact him in case of an emergency. (Another bonus: High-quality camera phones are inspiring lots of kids to become budding photographers!)
What Not to Do
Finally, avoid treating your child’s phone as a “reward or bargaining chip,” said Sands. “It’s a tool for information and communication,” and, as such, taking it away as a form of punishment will likely do more harm than good.
“Taking away a phone from a child for any period of time is really a recipe for ridicule from their friends and presents a lack of access to information,” said Sands.
Instead, keep talking about “responsible” usage, and remember that what they do on their phone is a huge part of their world — and it’s your job to become a part of it.
“Figure out how to engage in that relationship,” said Sands. “Ask questions, start conversations.”
And now, thanks to your kid’s cell phone, those conversations can include emojis.
Image via iStock.com/nimis69