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How to know if your child is ready for a cell phone, according to experts

Tips for navigating kids' cell phone use.

Girl using a smartphone Credit: Getty Images / SDI Productions

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Tech billionaire Bill Gates famously banned phones from his children until they were 14. Steve Jobs was purportedly against giving his children an iPad, and other Silicon Valley giants have voiced wariness of exposing their children to too much technology too young.

There is no denying it: Kids are getting cell phones younger and younger. A 2017 study of 4,584 children in grades 3, 4, and 5 showed that 59.8% of 5th graders, 50.6% of 4th graders, and a surprising 39.5% of 3rd graders reporting having their own cell phone.

Organizations have popped up over the past few years encouraging parents to sign an online pledge to wait until a benchmark of 8th-grade graduation to give their children a cell phone, but for some families it's not so simple. Ellie Rosales of Los Angeles says that most of the 5th graders at her children's school have cell phones and, from her standpoint, it's a matter of practicality. "A lot of them walk home with their siblings so it's great for communication with parents," she says.

All this begs the question, is there a right age for giving your child a cell phone? And once you've figured that out, when they inevitably start asking for a smart phone, how should that be navigated?

The experts we talked to unanimously had the same opinion: The question should be less about creating a hard and fast rule about determining the right age to give a cell phone, and more about how you allow cell phones and other devices into your lives. We've broken it down into some clear-cut tips to help you navigate the ever-changing technology that is cell phones and smart phones, no matter how rapidly it evolves.

Media literacy is the key

Model appropriate media use and boundaries for your children.
Credit: Getty Images / fizkes

Model appropriate media use and boundaries for your children.

You can always say, "they are only going to get a flip phone" but that doesn't necessarily help things if they are engaged in group texts that go off the rails or if there is a tablet waiting for them when they get home.

Our experts say the first step to deciding if you should give your child a cell phone or smart phone is to take the blinders off yourself and work on your own media literacy. Michelle Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, recommends you become as media literate as possible. Get educated on the topics that interest them and talk to your kids. Common Sense Media, Cyberwise, and Raising Digital Natives are all great resources to help you understand the world your children are entering into and thoughtfully help them navigate it.

Lipkin says that the best way to get kids to respect the boundaries you are setting up is to engage with your children in what they enjoy. "Watch the silly Youtube videos and laugh with them. Share with them the things you like that you’ve seen. Make it so the balance in the conversation isn't just about what they cannot do but is also about the appropriate ways to enjoy the media they may be using," she says.

Start young

They are never too young to start learning about media literacy.
Credit: Getty Images / Love Portrait

They are never too young to start learning about media literacy.

Your kids are going to have a cell phone at some point, and a smart phone will soon follow. Unless you choose to move off the grid and never expose them to technology, it's going to be a part of their lives.

Ian O'Byrne is a digital literacy researcher, former grade school teacher, and the host of the Technopanic podcast. O'Byrne says that while a lot of exposure can wait, you can start talking about social media as young as ages 5 or 6. It's never too young to talk about online stranger danger and how kids can protect themselves.

"You can't make their cell phone or tablet a taboo. When parents approach devices with fear it makes it so that kids are scared to talk to them if things go awry—you need to make this an ongoing and open discussion that they are comfortable engaging with you in," says O'Byrne.

When talking to kids so young, start at their level. Let them use the cell phone to talk to and text their grandparents where you can discuss the emojis they are selecting or about being as polite in text conversations as they are in person. If they see you using your cell phone, tell them why you are using it and who you are texting with. "The silence of texting makes it hard for kids to model what we are doing, so it's important to make sure you have those discussions," says O'Byrne.

Explain and model conscientious behavior

Allow your child to be part of the decision-making process of what part of their life goes online.
Credit: Getty Images / MesquitaFMS

Allow your child to be part of the decision-making process of what part of their life goes online.

When using your cell phone in the presence of your kids, O'Byrne suggests talking with them about why you may be using your phone when you are spending time with them, so they can have a better understanding of appropriate usage.

If you're with them at soccer practice but need to check your phone for work, let them know how you are trying to balance work and family time and keep your tech time to a minimum, if possible. "Answer that work text, but don't let yourself then start to zombie scroll through Twitter," says O'Byrne.

Or maybe you’re texting their aunt to let them know about their accomplishments or upcoming plans—let them in on what the texts you are typing are about. “Let them know that you are using your phone to a purpose, so that good choices are ingrained in them about when to interact or when to look at their phones when the time comes that they get them," says O'Byrne.

Lipkin also recommends that you check in with your kids as young as age 5 about when it's okay to post photos of them on social media. She says that will help them understand privacy and respect for other people online from a young age. "Help them understand thoughtful posting by engaging them in those decisions at a young age," says Lipkin.

Remove the taboo

Maintain open communication and remove the taboo of talking about what goes on online.
Credit: Getty Images / SDI Productions

Maintain open communication and remove the taboo of talking about what goes on online.

A bad choice is inevitable. There will be language you don't like, choices you don't approve of, and there might even be bullying, but both Lipkin and O'Byrne say the key is to stop thinking about cell phones and social media as a separate social entity.

Just as you may talk about how to treat people or handle conflict in the real world, you should recognize that these are things that kids will constantly need guidance on and understanding with as they learn and grow. "The social media and cell phone world aren't much different from the real world. I always tell people they can't draw a line between behavior on social media and behavior in the real world—both need to be taught," says Lipkin.

How your kid behaves in real life is how they will behave online

How your child behaves in real life is how you can expect them to behave online.
Credit: Getty Images / SDI Productions

How your child behaves in real life is how you can expect them to behave online.

Lipkin has two children, and says they couldn't be more different. Her older son is organized, methodical, and practical, while her daughter is more spontaneous and passionate and the kind of child who leads with her heart. Both kids have different strengths but, while her son was absolutely ready to have a cell phone at age 11, she is skeptical that her daughter will be when she reaches that age.

"Really look at how much guidance your child needs in the real world," she advises. If you have a child that needs a lot of social tools, supports, and guidance in the real world, chances are they are going to need that in the virtual world as well.

Take stock: Is your child sensitive, easily upset, do they struggle socially? If so, allow them more time to develop those skills face-to-face before setting them lose in a world where they lose personal feedback. Even if you feel like a flip phone with texting should be fine, it makes sense to start out small by limiting their interactions to a trusted few whose families you are close with and who you can help cultivate that real-world feedback with, should texts be misinterpreted.

Be a role model

Model good media habits with your kids.
Credit: Getty Images / MStudioImages

Model good media habits with your kids.

If you don't want your kids to zombie scroll, curb your habit of doing so yourself. If you don't want your kids to have a phone at the dinner table, make the table a screen-free zone at all times. If you don't want your children to have cell phones or screens in their bedrooms, then make a point of having the family plug them in together before bed.

O'Byrne says he has a colleague who has a "house cell phone" that stays plugged in in her kitchen that the whole family can use. "It's like the old house phone, but a step up. She's able to monitor and be a part of her children's usage."

Lipkin says that we can only expect our children to have as healthy of a relationship with cell phones as we do. Be mindful of your device usage. When you watch TV together, are you actually looking at your laptop? When you take your kid to the beach, are you spending most of your time editing photos of your family time on Instagram? Take stock of your media usage and how you use your cell phones and decide if you want to see your child using their cell phones in the same way.

"Kids are hypocrisy radars," says Lipkin. "They look at what we do more than listen to what we say. If we show an unhealthy need they will catch on to that. They will make decisions based on what they see us doing. ... We have to be role models. We can’t expect them to have a healthy relationship with technology if we don’t."

Hold them responsible

Teach kids to take care of their phone, by plugging them in at night. If they aren't ready for the care of a phone they probably aren't ready to own a phone.
Credit: Getty Images / BernardaSV

Teach kids to take care of their phone, by plugging them in at night. If they aren't ready for the care of a phone they probably aren't ready to own a phone.

O'Byrne says that sometimes it can be as easy as, if you can't care for it, you can't have it—and he says that it can be a pretty good rule of thumb that a child who doesn't know how to take care of a phone or a device probably isn't ready for one.

He says that if a child isn't ready for the physical responsibility of having a cell phone, they probably aren't ready for the emotional responsibility either. "Make them responsible for the care and keeping of their devices. Have them show the level of responsibility needed to keep them charged and cared for," he says. If you let them know that it's not simply a toy but a responsibility from the get go, there is a greater chance they will treat it as one.

A family charging dock can keep multiple devices organized. It's a great investment for a family that wants to promote and model responsible cell phone ownership—charging all devices in one place takes away the secrecy inherent in cell phones and other devices, allows kids to mimic the responsibility you take in caring for your devices, and makes it easier to manage and monitor your child's level of responsibility.

Make it public and make it purposeful

Have younger children use smartphones in your presence, to help them gain a better understanding of media boundaries.
Credit: Getty Images / fizkes

Have younger children use smartphones in your presence, to help them gain a better understanding of media boundaries.

For some of us, we laid down the rules about TV: No TV in the bedroom, no TV in the middle of the night, etc. But we haven't let those boundaries be as clear when it comes to the use of devices.

For Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and director of the USC Center for the Changing Family, the family rule is that screens must be public and purposeful when her two children are using them. By public, it means that her kids don't have their own devices and they don't do private screen time. By purposeful, she means no aimless browsing.

"If they want to watch a show we watch that specific show and if they want the iPad it's to play a specific game. No YouTube surfing from clip to clip—I think that is a particularly addictive way to engage. One goal with these rules is to make screens fairly unappealing so they default to other activities," she says.

That advice can also be useful when thinking about a phone that isn't yet a smart phone. "Be present. Don't be afraid to advise them. The right age for a child to use a cell phone is so subjective, but if you feel like they might be too young, have them use it in your presence and let them know that you will be checking their communication with friends until you feel comfortable," she says.

Figure out your boundaries before they start to ask

Figure out what your boundaries are before you give your child a phone. Cellphones in the bedroom after dark are almost always a "don't."
Credit: Getty Images / ljubaphoto

Figure out what your boundaries are before you give your child a phone. Cellphones in the bedroom after dark are almost always a "don't."

For many of us, this time has come and gone. Don't beat yourself up, but take the time to really figure out what your boundaries are. So many parents aren't even sure what their boundaries are with cell phones until their children break them. The next thing you know, the cell phone has been confiscated but the children don't have a full understanding or respect for what boundaries they may have crossed.

"We have to be talking about technology and media with our kids. The conflicts come from not having clear rules or talking about them. You have to have clarity around how the family is going to interact with technology," says Lipkin.

Come up with a clear plan before the cell phone is even purchased and talk with your child about it. "When you start discussing the plan, you can often glean whether or not your child has an understanding and is ready for that sort of media independence," says O'Byrne. When you open up that line of dialogue, really listen to where your child is at. It may help you better decide if they are ready, and just what sort of phone they seem most emotionally ready to own.

"Really, it's all about building healthy conversations from the get go. If you have that in place, it really doesn't have to be such a scary thing and everyone will feel more prepared," says O'Byrne.

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