FFFPreparing For Your Child’s First Cell Phone

No. 140; November 2023

Research data from before the COVID19 pandemic, found that most (but not all) children will have their own cell phone by grade 5 (11 years old). One of the most challenging parenting decisions today is deciding when your child is ready to carry their own cell phone.

Here are a few factors for every parent to consider:

  • Don’t be pressured.
    Despite what your child may tell you, not every child has their own cell phone by age 11. If you feel more comfortable waiting, there is no evidence that doing so will harm your child in any way. You may also consider starting with a simple phone that does not allow access to the internet and social media.
  • Owning a cellular phone has disadvantages as well as advantages.
    It can be very helpful for your child to have their own phone; they can contact you, and you can contact them. However, owning a smartphone (a phone able to access the internet) in elementary school has been linked to increased involvement in bullying and cyberbullying, and more screen time is also associated with physical and mental health problems. You may consider getting a cell phone that allows communication with a limited number of people but does not allow access to the internet or social media. 
  • Discuss the rules of owning a phone in advance and as needed over time. 
    It’s very important for parents and children to agree upon the rules before a phone is purchased. These rules may include:
    • Having a phone is a privilege and not a right.
    • It is the caregiver’s responsibility to supervise cell phone use. It is up to the adult when the child may use the phone. The adult owns the phone. The child may carry it, but it’s not “theirs” and the adult is free to look at it or even take it away, if necessary, at any time. 
    • There will be places and times where no phone use will be allowed, for example, before bedtime, at the dinner table, or when homework is being done.
    • The child will have to get permission to download apps for the phone.
    • If the parent calls, the child cannot ignore the call.
    • No phones in the bedroom overnight, especially for young children.
  • If your child cannot discuss the rules calmly and maturely, then they are probably not ready for their own cell phone.
  • Teach your child important points about owning a cell phone such as: 
    • What is expected to earn and keep a phone
    • How to take care of an expensive device (consideration of costs, risks of losing)
    • Understanding how emotions can escalate online
    • When to discuss issues with an adult
    • How to handle cyberbullying, and how to help yourself and friends when others are mean
    • Being careful about who you communicate with 
    • Content put on the internet is never private
    • If your child is old enough to drive, please speak with them to make sure they understand no cell phone use while driving
  • Utilize technology that helps you set limits.
    • Settings that limit or prohibit in-phone purchases can be useful
    • Consider apps or settings that help you monitor your child’s content, although this software should not replace discussions and setting ground rules with your child
    • Show your child how some apps can help them focus on their homework and avoid distractions
    • If caregivers are using software to monitor use, they should be transparent with kids about what they can see. 

Remember how you use your cell phone sets an important example for your children. Talk to your child and adolescent psychiatrist or qualified mental health professional if you have questions whether your child is ready for their first cell phone.

More information about these facts can be found online at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center or PBS Learning Media.

AT&T/AAP phone readiness questionnaire: https://screenready.att.com/digital-parenting/ 

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