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What is the Right Age to Give My Child a Smartphone?

The following excerpt is from “Parenting Gen Z: Guiding Your Child Through a Hostile Culture”

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

At what age should I let my kids have a smartphone or other device?

After all, we have age restrictions for many other freedoms and responsibilities. You have to be sixteen years old to drive, eighteen to vote and serve in the military, and twenty-one to buy alcohol. But at what age should parents hand over a phone to their kids?

Is there some magic age that makes it okay?

I’ve found that parents give their kids devices at all ages. For example, I once met a middle-aged mother, Susan, who let me know she had read my book Abandoned Faith about how many millennials today are forsaking the faith of their youth.

“I do have a question,” Susan said, “if you don’t mind . . .”

“I don’t mind!” I said with enthusiasm. “I love questions. Fire away.”

Susan was clearly relieved. “Before asking you what my husband and I should do, let me explain the situation,” she began. “Last Christmas we decided to give our daughter and son phones. We are now regretting that decision. They are constantly on their phones, and my son recently downloaded some games and additional app content that cost over a hundred dollars.”

At this point, Susan stopped talking and looked away for a moment to regain her composure.

“Sorry about that,” she resumed. “I’m just still a little frustrated by all this. So my question is, what should we do now with our kids’ phones? Should we take them away?”

“How old were your kids when you gave them phones for Christmas?” I asked.

“My daughter was thirteen, and my son was ten at the time.”

I’ll get back to Susan’s story in a moment. But before I do, let me also tell you about Eric’s situation.

After church one Sunday, Eric and I walked out of the building together. He told me that he was tired of arguing with his son over the amount of time he spent looking at screens. I asked Eric, “How much time does your son spend on his devices?”

Eric struggled to answer the question, so I followed up by asking, “Do you know what he’s doing on his devices?”

“To be honest with you, no, not really,” he replied.

Stories like Susan’s and Eric’s are typical of what I’ve encountered with many parents. They are confused about when to give a phone to their child, and then they often struggle to keep up with how their child is using the device.

I want to pause for a moment and have you take a quiz. Don’t be alarmed—this brief series of questions is meant to help you be more aware and proactive regarding screens and your kids.

  1. At what age did you give your kids a smartphone or other mobile device?
  2. What’s the average amount of time your kids spend on their screens every day?
  3. Do you know who they’re texting and what they’re viewing?
  4. Do you know what apps they like to use? Did you approve these apps?
  5. Do you know whether your kids have been exposed to porn?
  6. Have you placed any restrictions on their screen usage? Have you installed any content filters or made use of any parental controls on their phones?

I don’t know how you responded to the quiz, but you do. Perhaps you were pleased with your answers; maybe you were disappointed. Either way, it does little good to fret about the past. But you can be more proactive moving forward.

Now let’s get back to Susan and Eric.

List some mistakes you think Susan and her husband made with their kids.

List some mistakes you think Eric made with his son.

I want to be clear: This exercise isn’t about bashing Susan and Eric. The purpose is to learn from their experiences. Susan and Eric aren’t bad parents; they just both made particular (some would say questionable) decisions and are now regretting them.

With that in mind, let’s walk through some constructive steps that will safeguard your child, set appropriate boundaries, and give you the control you want and need as a parent when it comes to devices in the home.

  1. Think twice before giving preteens their own smartphones. This doesn’t mean that your children can never use a device to help with their homework, watch a movie, or play a game. But in my opinion, it’s neither wise nor healthy for younger kids to have access to an Internet-accessing device they can take with them wherever they go.

The moment you say to your twelve-year-old, “Here you go! Your father and I got you your own smartphone [or iPad, or whatever],” not only will they become quite possessive of it, but it will likely also become a point of contention. Plus, think about what you’re handing them. You’re not just allowing them to text their friends or play some games; you’re handing them a powerful computer that gives them almost unlimited access to the digital world.

Do you know how old someone needs to be to sign up for any of the top social media platforms? Thirteen. That’s largely due to 1998 federal legislation called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which restricts websites from tracking data of anyone under thirteen. (Even Congress recognized the need to protect young children online.) That’s why I probably wouldn’t consider entrusting your child with a device until he or she is at least thirteen or fourteen years old.

Keep in mind that you know your children better than I do, and that this age range might not be best for your kids. All children are not the same. Boys and girls are not the same. Maybe some of your kids need to mature a bit more before you hand them their own screens. In fact, I’ve talked with several teens who told me they didn’t get their first phone until they were fifteen or sixteen.

I believe that many parents (myself included) need to take a hard look at the amount of “parent pressure” we succumb to. Parent pressure is exactly what it sounds like— peer pressure for parents. In other words, if all the other parents let their ten-year-olds have phones, then who are you to be the only holdout?

What is our duty as parents? Are we supposed to make decisions regarding our kids based on the pressures of the culture around us, or should we make those decisions based on our faith and our convictions? As parents, as leaders, we are not to give in to the pressures of the world at large. We don’t surrender our responsibility simply to avoid being the “strict parent”; nor do we give in to our kids’ demands just because their friends have phones and they don’t.

  • Before granting your child access to a screen and all the social media that comes with it, make sure that you (and your spouse, if you’re married) sit down with your children to discuss specific guidelines and expectations. If your kids don’t agree to your terms, then I suggest that they not have a device. Your job is to hold them accountable for what they view, post, and share. I’ve known some parents who drafted a “contract” for smartphone use and required their kids to sign it.
  • Monitor the amount of time your kids spend on their screens and be aware of how they’re using them. I can’t stress this enough: Setting boundaries is only half the process—you have to enforce them! Many parents establish guidelines with their kids yet fail to monitor their actual usage and activity. That’s not fair to your kids. They might not like you checking their phone or making sure that the parental controls are working properly, but you don’t need to feel bad—you’re just doing your job as a parent. You’re protect- ing them from potential danger, and you’re holding them accountable to abide by the rules you all agreed to.
  • Be sure to enforce consequences if your children go behind your back and violate the guidelines you’ve established. I encourage parents to come up with some consequences beforehand— ones that you will follow through on. I suggest practical ones; for example, if your child doesn’t act responsibly with a smartphone, then perhaps that child shouldn’t have one for a while. (I’ll talk more about implementing consequences in chapter 9.)
  • Make use of any available parental controls; install filtering software for your home Internet service and on your children’s devices. I like to save money as much as the next guy, but this is not the time to cut corners. We have no problem spending money on locks for our doors and even home security systems, so spending a few dollars a month on our kids’ well-being while they are on their devices shouldn’t be an issue. In my experience, you can find good parental control software for an annual cost of less than a hundred dollars. (My wife and I have used a product called Qustodio for several years to manage our family’s mobile devices, and we also take advantage of the parental controls on our Internet router at home.)
  • Have ongoing conversations with your kids about the good and bad of technology—and ask them if they’ve come across anything online that’s bothered them or made them feel uncomfortable. Since our two older children have recently enrolled in college classes, my wife and I have been very cautious regarding just how much personal information they make public online. Just the other day, one of my boys showed me a random text he received inviting him to click a link to have sex with people in the area.

Troubling, right? My friends, this happens all the time. If you have access to Netflix, I encourage you to watch a documentary called The Social Dilemma. I watched it with my kids. The documentary features a host of tech veterans who spent time at Google, Facebook, YouTube, and other digital giants. Some of these experts helped develop the technology that these companies operate.

They know the secret sauce, and they reveal how Big Tech is spying on us—feeding us inaccurate or unwanted information, analyzing our search patterns and selling the data, plus sending us unsolicited notifications in an effort to keep us on our devices (and their platforms in particular) for ever-longer periods of time. So stay alert, be informed, and pray faithfully that your children can stand strong against the schemes and temptations that plague the digital realm.

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