by Dr. Wolfe
Parents often ask me if and when they should give their child a cell phone. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question since each family’s needs are different and each child’s maturity is also different. However, there are important things you can consider to help you make a decision that’s best for your family.
Ask yourself the following six questions and think through your answers to decide whether your child is ready for a cell phone.
1. Does my child need a cell phone for safety reasons? Think through any reason that a cell phone may be beneficial for your child’s safety. For example, does your child stay home alone without a land line? Does your child have to take public transportation home from school? Or does your child stay late after class or travel to participate in extracurricular activities? In these situations, you will likely want your child to be able to contact you in case of an emergency.
2. Do I need help keeping track of where my kid is and when he needs me? Cell phones can be helpful to keep track of where your child is. Not only can you call or text them anytime to check, but some cell phone providers have a Family GPS option. You can use this to find where your child is using the GPS on their phone. Also, If you’re dropping them off and picking them up at multiple practices or friends’ houses, they can let you know when they’re done and save you from waiting if practice runs over. Sometimes parents find giving their kids a cell phone is extremely helpful for managing their own schedules!
3. Does my child make good decisions? This is a big one. Does your child normally make good decisions, rather than acting impulsively? Do they usually tell the truth? Follow your rules? These will be a good indication of how they will act with a cell phone. If they don’t already make smart choices with other things, then no matter how much they promise, it’s not going to be any different with getting a cell phone.
Interestingly, the frontal lobe of the brain, which is the part that controls decision making, is not fully developed until you’re in your early twenties. So kids and teenagers have trouble understanding consequences (especially long-term), controlling their impulses, and making thoughtful decisions. Because of this, even the best-behaved kids are going to have trouble making good decisions at times.
It will be important for you to have conversations with your kids about good decision making and the consequences that can come from bad decisions. Talk with them about problematic and dangerous cell phone behaviors, such as talking to strangers, bullying, sexting, and pornography. Don’t assume that they know what smart choices are for their phones. Spell it out clearly and remind them. You may also want to set up parental controls on their phone.
4. Does my child need Internet/ data/ camera/ texting/etc.? A lot of kids don’t! Younger kids in particular may only need the phone in order to make and receive phone calls. If you feel like you can’t trust your child to use their certain parts of their phone responsibly, consider getting them a phone without these options. You can either buy them a flip phone or buy them a smart phone but disable features that you don’t want them to have access to. Another option is just not to buy a data plan for their phone.
If you think your child can handle these features, but you’re not quite sure, an additional possibility is to set up the phone so that you get a copy of each text they send or receive. In fact, I’d probably suggest this when they first get texting activated on their phone. Please don’t try to do this without telling them or it’s going to lead to problems down the road – let your child know that you will be getting a copy of their texts. It will help you develop trust in them, while at the same time, focusing on safety. When you become comfortable with their cell phone activity, you can stop using this feature.
5. If I give my child a cell phone, what will the rules be? Do I think she can follow them? I’d recommend that you and your child go through the rules together and are both in agreement before buying the phone.
When coming up with rules, think about the following:
6. How can I make sure the cell phone doesn’t disrupt their sleep? Cell phones can disrupt sleep when used before bed. First, the artificial light from the screen stimulates the brain to stay awake, so using the phone before bed can make it more difficult to fall asleep. And second, sleeping with the phone on and next to the bed can cause interruptions to the sleep cycle anytime a text or alert is received. Even if a child says they aren’t waking up, it can be disturbing their sleep without them even knowing it.
I’d suggest that at least one or two hours before bedtime, their phone should be in a common area, charging. (This also ensures that the phone is charged, since some kids and teens constantly forget this.) If you have the phone in a visible place after hours, you can feel comfortable knowing that it’s not keeping them up.
These questions should provide a good start as you think about the decision to give your child a cell phone.