How and when to give a child a cell phone of their own is a big decision for parents. The bulk of research suggests that the less screen time children have the better. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests having a family plan with set limits on screen use. Giving them a cell phone is putting a screen, often with a camera and the internet, in their pocket. Setting limits becomes that much more challenging.
I’ve met three-year-olds who have their own phones and tablets. That ownership seems young by any standards. In the United States about 10% of children have their own phone by five years old, and 65% by ten to twelve years old. As a mom, I wanted my children to be able to call home without having to ask permission when they started riding with other families often and spending the night away from home. This made sense to me at 12 years old, around 7th grade. Whenever you decide, here are a few things to consider:
- Start with a limited phone – Our girls each started with a talk and text phone only for the first two years.
- The phone belongs to the parent – We made this really clear from the beginning. We own the phone and are sharing it with them. It was understood that we’d check on their phone use, their calls and their texting once in a while. It isn’t an invasion of privacy if it’s part of the plan.
- Only connect with people you know in real life – This rule applied to talk, text and chat in the beginning. It applies to Facebook and Snapchat now. It doesn’t apply to Twitter and Instagram, but we had a talk to make that decision as a family.
- Talk directly about inappropriate talk, texts and pictures – If they are old enough to have a cellphone, they are old enough to have these conversations. Make your expectations and limits clear.
- Good to get permission to add apps or have accounts – It’s helpful to be clear about what apps and accounts they may have, and the need for having permission before they add new ones.
- Smart to have apps and accounts where they do – You don’t have to be connected to them directly (don’t have to be their friend or follower), but it’s smart to know how each works and what’s available there. I was mildly surprised by what’s available on Instagram.
- Healthy to set daily screen free times and places – In our house this is all mealtimes, school hours and homework time unless it is specifically required.
- Set a daily time to turn off – In our house this is 9:00pm on week nights and 11:30pm on weekends and vacations.
- Safe to hold onto the NOT in their bedrooms rule – When families first started having desk top computers, a common rule was to not have the computer in a child’s room. For safety and for healthy sleep, this rule remains a good one for all screens.
- Fine for child to be responsible for part or all of this – Some families decide to have their child pay for some or all of their phone service. Other families add weekly chores in exchange for the phone.
- Either way, discuss staying within data limits and plan if they go over – It is helpful that everyone knows what the limits are, how to stay in and what happens (or who pays) if anyone goes over.
- Of course, important to consider the individual child – This includes how well they follow rules, meet expectations, how responsible they are with belongings and how much difficulty they’re having managing peer pressure and social conflicts.