It’s a rite of passage for parents of tweens: By the time your child is 10 or 12, she decides that she must have a cell phone, because if she can’t text and talk to her friends her social life will be “ruined.” You may be skeptical about that, but the idea has some appeal to you, too: As she begins to become independent, you want to be able to keep in touch with her, especially if she has started traveling alone.
But the prospect of the cell phone comes with a host of concerns:
- Cost: Should you spend money (in some cases, upwards of $200) on an object that a child could so easily lose or break?
- Runaway data charges: Your bill can skyrocket without your kid understanding that she’s costing you money, and we’ve all read stories of children naively charging small fortunes to their parents’ credit cards on games and other apps.
- Crossing the line: What if your child texts or posts something inappropriate or even sexually explicit? Mistakes can be damaging, and permanent.
- Getting hurt: The more ever-present the mobile device is, the higher the threat of cyberbullying. It’s also possible, through social media, for kids to be painfully aware of what they’re missing out on.
- Checking out: And finally, there’s the terrifying image of your child arriving at the dinner table, phone in hand, and remaining glued to the screen throughout the meal. For many parents, the most threatening aspect of the phone is how attention-sucking it is.
Given the risks, should kids have cell phones and how do you decide when it’s the right time to take the plunge?
It’s not just about age
Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist and anxiety expert at the Child Mind Institute, says he is asked this question often by parents with kids between 10 and 12.
“I tell parents that it’s not so much about a particular age as it is about a kid’s social awareness and understanding of what the technology means,” Dr. Bubrick explains. “You could have a really immature 15-year-old who’s acting out on the phone, but you give it to him because he’s 15, whereas a really socially mature 12-year-old could handle it better.”
Dr. Bubrick recommends considering these issues:
- How often does your child lose things, especially expensive things? If you tell her something is extra important, does she take special care of it, or leave it on the bus after a few days?
- How well does your child handle money? Will she be in the middle of a game and impulsively buy more lives without considering their cost?
- Consider how easily your kid picks up on social cues. If she’s slow to catch on, this deficit could be aggravated in texting and posting on social media. Dr. Bubrick cites an example of a child repeatedly messaging her friends with the word “hey” and not understanding why no one responds.
- How savvy is your child about technology? Does she truly understand that future college admissions staff, employers, and colleagues could conceivably see anything she posts now?
- How well does your child do with limits to screen time? If he is constantly glued to the computer or game console, he will probably have difficulty putting down the phone as well.
Cell phones and ADHD
The constant stimulation available via smartphone makes them especially distracting for kids with ADHD. “We know from behavioral science that we move towards things that we find immensely reinforcing, and move away from things we find aversive,” explains David Anderson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD and behavioral disorders at the Child Mind Institute. “Phones are made to be as reinforcing as possible. If you’re not getting an email, you’re getting a social media update, or you’re checking a news feed, or you’re checking a sports score.”
Children with ADHD find it more difficult to resist the siren call of all that stimulation, and to stay tuned in to activities that are less reinforcing but more important–activities like homework or dinner table conversation.
Cell phones are also especially risky for kids, including those with ADHD, who are prone to act impulsively. Their impulsivity makes them more likely to post or send something they may regret later on, and in a world where everything you create is recorded in cyberspace, they are at risk for making long-lasting mistakes.
The not-so-smart phone
If you don’t feel that your child is quite ready to be trusted with a smart phone, one option is to provide him with a phone that allows for calling and texting but not much else. One such device is Sprint’s “WeGo,” a child-friendly phone for 5- to 12-year-olds that features GPS tracking and allows you to program specific incoming and outgoing numbers. It includes a string that can be pulled to set off a panic alarm.
Dr. Anderson, however, reminds parents who take this route that their child will eventually have to learn how to use more capable phones. He warns, “We don’t want to make it so that they’re limited for so long that by the time they get a smartphone or they’re exposed to social media, they have no way of making effective and appropriate decisions around that.”
If you’re ready to take the plunge
For parents who do decide to give their children fully functioning phones, experts recommend setting clear guidelines in a conversation before they receive the device. Here are some sample rules that parents can apply to their kids’ cell phone use:
- Establish that you are to know the password to the child’s phone, and that you have the right to take it away if you’re not satisfied that he’s using it wisely.
- Set limits on both general screen time and phone time. Dr. Bubrick urges this rule especially strongly for kids who already have difficulty breaking away from a screen.
- Agree on limits to how much money is available to cover the data plan and any game or app expenses.
- Determine what the consequences will be if the phone is lost or broken. Will it be replaced? And, if so, who will pay for it?
- Specify times of the day when using the phone is not allowed, such as late at night or during family activities. “No sleeping with your phone,” Catherine Steiner-Adair suggests in her book The Big Disconnect. “The phone stays off during homework and family meals.”
- Text and phone are not to be used for important or emotional conversations–those must still take place face-to-face. Tell your kids, urges Dr. Steiner-Adair, that the phone should not be used to hide or escape from uncomfortable situations.
- Monitor the social media sites that your kids use, and make them aware that you are doing it. “Kids should act as if their parents are reading almost everything they post,” explains Dr. Anderson. And if that’s not enough of a deterrent to overshare or act impulsively, explain that they shouldn’t post anything they wouldn’t be comfortable having their grandparents read.
While you may choose to enforce different rules, make sure they are clear from the very beginning, the experts say, and establish consequences if these guidelines are not followed.
“You’re training your kids to make good decisions over time,” explains Dr. Bubrick, “so that eventually, when they leave you, you can trust that they will make those good decisions on their own.