The cell phone has become a new rite of passage in our children’s lives. It is not as exciting as a first step or learning to ride a bike, but it is life changing for them and for us as parents. It is a big decision, and children seem to be getting phones at a younger age. Research shows that on average children in the United States are 10 years old when they get their first smartphone.
After years of begging and several PowerPoint presentations prepared by my daughter, we recently decided the time had come and decided to give her a phone for her 13th birthday. I did a lot of prior research and thought I was prepared, but there have definitely been a few surprises. Here is what I have learned that might help ease this new rite of passage:
DETERMINE THE TIMING
How do you determine the right time? There is no magic age. It depends on the child, the family situation, and the need. There are a few considerations: Can your child take care of it? Smartphones are not cheap, so give your child a few responsibility tests to see if he or she can handle keeping track of and taking care of it. Does your child need it? Or just want it because it is “cool” or because a lot of other kids have one? For us, it came down to my daughter wanting some more independence and freedom to walk places and meet friends, and we felt more comfortable having her do this if she had a way to call us or call for help. You may find that with sports or other after-school activities a phone becomes necessary for safety.
Maturity level is another important consideration and whether your child can handle everything that comes with a smartphone — Internet browser, texting, and social media for teens.
One of my biggest fears and concerns has always been the idea of giving our child the “world in her pocket,” but after a lot of research and determining what parental controls and limits we were going to put on the device and our daughter, it didn’t seem as daunting. Most issues arise when parents just give their child a smartphone — which I like to equate with giving your children the keys to a car without teaching them how to drive. They need instruction, limits, and tools to navigate this new sense of freedom.
For us, I purchased the phone and set it up ahead of time, which included taking off or disabling apps and setting up parental controls. At her birthday dinner before she got the phone, she got an envelope with a contract in it — a two-page detailed contract outlining the rules, responsibilities, and expectations, including acceptable places (where and when) to use the phone. After she signed it, she was presented with the phone. My husband and I spent a lot of time on the contract, customizing it to fit our family and our lifestyle. This has been key and has helped eliminate many (not all) frustrations over her always having her nose in her phone.
A LIFE-CHANGING DECISION
This experience has been life changing both for her and for us as parents in both good and bad ways. This is a big decision and should not be taken lightly or done with little forethought. Once you give a phone to your child there is no turning back. I always thought, how different can a phone be from an iPad — they do virtually all the same things? Now having gone through the experience I can say they are very different. The biggest difference is that a phone is a pocket device that goes everywhere with your child, which makes it that much more important to set those limits about where and when it can be used. Nothing starts a fight faster in our backseat than one of them on a device when the other two don’t have one. A pleasant surprise of my daughter having a phone is how easy and convenient it has been for me to communicate a change in plans or to coordinate a pick up.
Technology has changed how our children are growing up and how parents have to adapt. It is a huge part of their lives and how they are communicating and connecting with each other and with us. I believe in guided access — giving them a little bit at a time, similar to sugar. The kids who never have any and then do go crazy and then that’s all they want, but in moderation everything is better. So whether you are trying to hold off as long as possible or contemplating this decision now, make sure to do your homework and be prepared.
Liz Farrell is the mother of three young children and the founder of TechTalks, a consulting group to help schools and families have productive and healthy conversations around social media and technology. Email: [email protected]