When Should Your Child Get a Cellphone?

Two kids are sitting on the couch using their cellphones
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Not long ago, my son asked the question that every modern parent will face at some point or another: "Can I get a smartphone?"

My boy is 12, so my wife and I thought we were actually pretty fortunate to have thus far avoided this conversation. It seems kids today have their own mobile device at younger ages than even just a few years ago.

As we talked with our son, I realized that we were approaching the question from two different viewpoints. Our son is a typical middle schooler, and he sees the mobile device as a social tool, a way to find a sense of belonging with his peers. He wants to contact pals from school and church about homework, basketball and all the other little adventures of life — and maybe enjoy a few games and apps on the side.

Like most parents, my wife and I approached the smartphone question from a different angle. In our minds, a kids’ primary need for a mobile device is communicating with parents and siblings. Family life is just easier when everyone can check in (or be checked up on) at any time. Yet this perfectly reasonable desire — to be in close contact with family — should be weighed against other factors, such as each child’s unique temperament and what overall impact technology will have (and has already had) on family life. So, as parents, before we can give a good response to this request, we need to first ask ourselves a few questions:

Will a cellphone make life easier?

Parents often approach the cellphone question thinking it’s going to make their parenting easier. While it’s true that cellphones are convenient, easier probably isn’t the first word many parents of tweens and teens use to describe the overall effect that mobile technology has had on their lives. As a family counselor, I am always hearing from parents who are frustrated about the way mobile devices dominate their kids' lives. The use and misuse of these devices has become a major focus of their daily parenting. There are apps and games to be aware of, texting boundaries and time limits on games, the possibility of online predators, and all the corners of the internet available for a child to explore.

Yes, there are likely moments these parents are happy to tap a screen and get in touch with their children. But the first question parents need to ask themselves is whether those times of convenience outweigh the complications. When we give our children a portable electronic window into everything the world has to offer, our parenting challenges potentially increase, not decrease. Those challenges can be managed, but we must have good reasons for heading into this territory.

Is the device really for safety?

Not long ago, I read a story about a mom who'd gotten her kids phones as a "safety net" when her kids were commuting to school. One afternoon, her 13-year-old son didn't arrive home. She called his phone several times but only got voice mail. Terrified, she called the school, who radioed the school bus driver, who searched his bus to find the boy sleeping in a back seat. As this mom recounted the story, she noted that the very reason she'd gotten her kids phones was to keep them safe as they went to school across town. But when what seemed like an emergency came up, her son's phone hadn’t made a difference. (The battery had supposedly died.)

This mom recognized something that many parents now understand: No one really gets a smartphone "just for emergencies." This assumes that phones are always on, that everyone is constantly connected. Kids without mobile devices have been making safe decisions for years. Yes, safety is something every parent must be concerned about, but it’s a much bigger conversation than just whether our kids have a constant electronic pipeline back to home.

Is my child mature enough for a cellphone?

Having a mobile phone means being able to easily communicate with friends and family, but today's high-tech wonder-toys have a lot more under the hood than texting and calling. It doesn't take more than a few minutes for a child to figure out how to use the camera, how to send pictures and how to visit a link sent from a friend.

You can set up parental controls, and even lock down usage to just calls and texting. But those types of limits are often ... well, limited. Kids know what their devices can do, what games are available and what "educational" websites you'll let them visit for a few minutes. So the primary strategy for teaching healthy tech use should be to help our children understand wise guidelines and discernment. Kids face dozens of choices whenever they pick up a phone, and it's critical that we are able to trust them to make good decisions.

Before giving your child a cellphone, ask yourself: Does my child make good decisions about time limits? Does he have media discernment? And is she committed to following wise tech boundaries? If you can’t answer “yes” to all three of these questions, perhaps the child isn’t ready for a cellphone.

If you answered “no,” start a conversation about what phone use will look like in your family life. Talk it all through — everything from basic social etiquette and manners to all the problematic content that a child may encounter. Help your kids understand the consequences of texting photos to friends, safely managing social media pages, sharing private information, dealing with bullies, stalkers and whoever else may want to contact them.

Talk about the addictive quality of games and internet content, and rededicate yourself to a family culture that practices discernment and follows sensible limits on time with other media platforms. They won't always make great media choices, because they're still learning. Still, before you hand your children a digital porthole to the rest of the world, be sure your confidence outweighs your concerns when it comes to their capacity to act with wisdom and stay within the boundaries you’ve set as a family.

Daniel Huerta is a licensed counselor and the director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family.

This article first appeared on FocusOnTheFamily.com.

Copyright © 2016 by Focus on the Family

Next in this Series: 5 Tips for Cellphone Use

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