When should you allow your child to get a cell phone? 

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When your child is between 10 and 12, they decide that they just have to have a cell phone. If they cannot text and talk to their friends, their social life is “ruined.” Although not completely true, you can go with it because that is the perfect way to always stay in touch with them, especially when they start to travel alone.  

There are of course multiple concerns when getting your child a phone. Cost is one thing, as you should not spend a lot of money on high-end phones for your kids. They can easily break or lose them. Runaway data charges are also tricky, as the bill can sharply increase if the kid does not understand money. Today, it is easy to go overboard with apps and features on different virtual stores. Of course, crossing the line by posting or texting something inappropriate is always a concern, and these mistakes can be permanent and costly. We have to talk about cyberbullying, as getting hurt over social media is a real danger today. Finally, that dependency on phones that drives people mad. Imagine your child with their phone “glued” to their hand, even during family meals.  

Given all of these risks, should your kids have cell phones and how should you decide when is the right time? 

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It is not just about age 

Jerry Bubrick, who is a clinical psychologist and anxiety expert at the Child Mind Institute, says that he is often asked this question by the parents of kids between 10 and 12. 

“I tell parents that it’s not so much about a particular age as it is about a kid’s social awareness and understanding of what the technology means. You could have a really immature 15-year-old who’s acting out on the phone, but you give it to him because he’s 15, whereas a really socially mature 12-year-old could handle it better.” 

He recommends considering the following: 

How often does your child lose things? Do they take special care of important things when you stress the value of it?  

How well do they handle money? Are they capable of impulsively buying more lives in games without thinking of consequences? 

How easily does your child pick up social cues? If they are slow to catch on, texting and posting on social media could be a problem. Dr. Bubrick gives an example of a child who repeatedly texts their friends “hey” without understanding why no one ever responds. 

How tech-savvy is your child? Do they truly understand that their future college admissions staff, employers, and colleagues could trace what they post now? 

How well do your children do with screen time limits? If they are glued to the computer or laptop or gaming consoles, the same will happen with phones. 

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Cell phones and ADHD 

Smartphone make them tremendously distracting for kids with ADHD. David Anderson, a clinical psychologist specializing in ADHD and behavioral disorders at the Child Mind Institute, says: 

“We know from behavioral science that we move towards things that we find immensely reinforcing, and move away from things we find aversive. Phones are made to be as reinforcing as possible. If you’re not getting an email, you’re getting a social media update, or you’re checking a news feed, or you’re checking a sports score.” 

It is more difficult for children with ADHD to resist the call of all the stimulation, and to pay attention to activities less reinforcing but more important, those like homework and dinner table conversation. 

The not-so-smart phone 

If you do not think that your kid is ready to own a smart phone, provide them with the one that allows calling, texting and not much else. Sprint’s “WeGo” is perfect for this, as it is a child-friendly phone for 5- to 12-year-olds, featuring GPS tracking. It allows you to program specific incoming and outgoing numbers, and includes a string that sets off a panic alarm when pulled off. 

Dr. Anderson reminds parents that their child will have to learn how to use phones that are more capable at some point. “We don’t want to make it so that they’re limited for so long that by the time they get a smartphone or they’re exposed to social media, they have no way of making effective and appropriate decisions around that.” 

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If you are ready to do it 

Experts recommend that you set clear guidelines in a conversation before they get their hands on the device. Here are some potential rules: 

Establish the understanding that you have to know the password to the phone, as well as that you have every right to take the phone away if they are not using it wisely. 

Set limits on screen time and phone time, especially for kids who are already glued to the computer or TV screen.  

Agree on money limits available for the data plan and game or app expenses. 

Determine the consequences of a lost or broken phone. Who will pay and how, for a potential replacement?  

Specify when the phone is not to be used at all, like late at night or during family activities. Catherine Steiner-Adair suggests the following in her book “The Big Disconnect”: “No sleeping with your phone. The phone stays off during homework and family meals.” 

Important or emotional conversations should not be done over the phone or via texts, but always face-to-face. Tell the kids that the phones should never be used to hide or escape uncomfortable situations. 

Monitor social media your kids are on and also make them aware that you do it regularly. “Kids should act as if their parents are reading almost everything they post,” says Dr. Anderson.  

Dr. Bubrick explains at the end, saying “You’re training your kids to make good decisions over time so that eventually, when they leave you, you can trust that they will make those good decisions on their own.