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When Should Your Kid Get a Cell Phone?

Sooner or later, she’ll be asking for one (if she isn’t already). Here’s how to know when the time is right.


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©istockphoto.com / dolgachov 

When you were a kid, the only telephone you used was a landline with a cord attached, but now, your crew’s all about getting their hands on your smartphone (and wanting their own). While they’re excited about having friends at their fingertips and downloading a slew of games, you’re busy thinking about their safety and your phone bill. 

Cell phones are a big part of kids’ lives—22 percent of children (ages 6-9), 60 percent of tweens (ages 10-14) and 84 percent of teens (ages 15-18) have a phone of their own, according to a report from C&R Research. On average, kids are getting their first smartphones around age 10, according to 2015 research from Influence Central, down from age 12 in 2012. We surveyed New Jersey Family readers and many say they bought their kids a phone at some point during the middle school years. If you’re considering letting your child have her own phone, there are a few things you need to know. 

Figuring Out if Your Kid is Ready

Many experts agree the right age for a child to have his own phone depends on your family’s lifestyle and his maturity level. Michael Rich, MD, director of the Center On Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, says it’s time for a cell phone when there’s a genuine need to communicate with Mom or Dad. 

“When your child has demonstrated that he can be a good digital citizen and take [on] responsibility for the phone by using it in ways that are healthy and safe, then you should look into a plan,” Rich says. “Kids of the same age vary greatly in both their communication skills and ability to take [on] responsibility, even in the same family, so these decisions should be made on the basis of parents’ understanding of their own child.” 

Another good indicator that your kid is ready is when he’s old enough to go to the movies, the park or a friend’s house without you, says Denise Lisi DeRosa, program manager for Good Digital Parenting in Washington D.C.  It also might not be a bad idea to add her to your plan if she’s in after-school activities. “Typically this starts when a child reaches ages 10 to 13,” DeRosa says. “Parents need to determine if their child needs a phone for safety reasons, to stay connected if they’re working, or as a way to communicate with parents who are divorced or no longer live together.”  

Steven Tobias, MD, director of the Center for Child & Family Development in Morristown, agrees, emphasizing that readiness depends on the kid. “Middle schoolers especially will try to make the argument that everyone else has one,” he says. “Make sure you don’t fall for that if they’re not ready yet.” 

What to Worry About 

Once you’re ready to buy a phone, there are a few things to cover before handing it over. More than one-third of middle school and high school-aged kids admit to storing information on their phones to cheat on a test, according to a survey by Common Sense Media. While parents polled in the survey believed cheating happens at their child’s school, only three percent think their own kid could be guilty.  

Rich says having a phone in school could tempt a child to cheat. Buying a phone too soon can be harmful in other ways, too. “Few elementary and middle school kids have the neurodevelopment of their executive functions, like impulse control and future thinking, to manage their cell phone use in ways that are responsible for themselves and their community,” says Rich. He suggests parents discuss exactly how, when, where and why the phone should be used, along with things it should never be used for—like sexting. 

A 2014 Drexel University study asked college students how often they sent or received “sexually explicit text messages or images,” and what age they started. The results were alarming: the majority of teens admitted to sending sexual texts before age 18, with some starting as early as 13. 

New Jersey teens are no exception. In 2014, several girls under 16 from Ridge High School in Bernards Township got into trouble after school administrators found naked pictures of them on students’ phones.  Rich suggests that parents start their kids out with a phone that doesn’t have a camera and talk with them about the dangers of sending private or inappropriate content.

But the reality is just about every kid will get a smartphone with a camera, so be sure to monitor his camera roll, plus any photo-based apps. Keep tabs on his Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook or any other social media platforms he uses.

Set firm ground rules for cell phone use, like making sure they give you their phones an hour before bed. “It’s crucial to lay out the rules or limits in terms of the amount of time they spent on their phone and the media they have access to,” suggests Tobias. “They should also have consequences for breaking them.” 

He also recommends having kids sign a contract that outlines the consequences of their actions if they break the rules. You can make your own, or get one here.

Teaching Responsibility 

Gauging how responsible your kids are—and teaching them along the way—is key to cell phone management and a healthy relationship with social media. 

When it comes to monitoring your children’s cell phone use, websites like Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) and the Family Online Safety Institute’s Good Digital Parenting hub (fosi.org) will help you regulate how often they’re glued to the screen. Be sure to keep a close eye on your plan’s data, too.

DeRosa says getting a plan with unlimited texting for your teen will save you money—especially since niche.com found that texting accounted for 87 percent of all teen cell phone use, more than Facebook and Instagram combined. Make sure you talk with your service provider when you buy the phone about adding parental controls. It’ll give you better insight into helping your child stay safe. 

Trust your gut when figuring out the best time to get a phone for your child and don’t be afraid to set rules and stick to them. You might have hated being grounded, but you know what’s worse for today’s kids? Taking their phones away. So remember: You always have that power.

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