If you’re the parent of a school-aged child, you’ve almost certainly had to confront a question our own parents never had to consider: At what age should my child have their own smartphone?
According to a 2016 survey by the marketing firm Influence Central, the average age at which children receive their first smartphone is just over 10—down from age 12 just four years before. But that trend toward smartphones at younger and younger ages has some experts calling for caution. Read on for their reasoning—and for tips on introducing a smartphone to your child.
The basic benefits of smartphones for kids are obvious: They keep kids connected like never before and open up educational possibilities that didn’t exist a generation ago.
According to Michael Rich, M.D., director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, there are other benefits for middle and high schoolers that extend way beyond these basics.
“Smartphones and the internet at large are a really fertile environment for some of the key tasks of normal adolescent development,” says Rich. Adolescents, he explains, are learning to function increasingly independently and are also learning to look beyond themselves to the outside world. They are also working furiously to build their own identities and are seeking connection to others like them. Smartphones can legitimately aid adolescents in all of these developments, says Rich.
But there are serious potential downsides of giving a smartphone too early. According to Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, adolescents have an immature prefrontal cortex—which is the part of the brain that governs impulse control, future thinking, and understanding of consequences. And that immaturity presents real safety concerns.
“Smartphones come with a lot of ways for children to act impulsively, and those actions can be dangerous,” Knorr explains. “These devices allow you to post on the internet, publicly share your location, and send pictures that might compromise your safety or other people’s safety.”
Aside from safety, there’s the issue of distraction and addiction. Smartphones tend to be physically on us at all times, and the apps on our phones are designed to keep pinging us and drawing us back in, says Rich. It’s no surprise, then, that a full 50 percent of adolescents admit feeling addicted to their mobile device, according to a Common Sense Media survey.
Some experts are also concerned that smartphones may be having a profound negative impact on adolescent mental health. One 2017 study found that mental health problems—including depressive symptoms and suicide attempts—had both risen dramatically for adolescents between the years 2010 and 2015—a period of time in which adolescent use of social media and smartphones had ballooned. Not only that, the study found that adolescents who spent the most time on smartphones and related media were at the highest risk for mental health problems. Specifically, adolescents who spent five or more hours online each day were 71 percent more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor compared to peers who spent one hour or less online each day.
According to Melanie Hempe, president of Families Managing Media, one explanation for the apparent negative impact of smartphones on adolescent mental health is that they often function as a time suck, sapping productivity and creativity.
“When a child or a teenager feels like their whole life is consistent in this place where they’re wasting time, they become depressed,” Hempe says. “We are designed to be creative and to produce things and to have something to show for our time. That’s a huge underlying current that’s not being addressed in our culture.”
Unfortunately, there’s no magic age at which adolescents across the board are ready for a smartphone. But according to Hempe, one good indicator of your child’s readiness is how well they communicate. “Ironically, that’s going to be the first thing to go when they get a phone,” says Hempe. “They are going to quit talking as much in person. Their communication skills are going to take a nosedive.”
If you’re already struggling with strong, open communication with your child, know that a smartphone is likely to make the problem worse—whereas if your child does communicate well with you and other adults, you can be more confident that your good communication pattern will continue.
You can also get a good idea of whether or not your child is ready by looking at the level of maturity he or she is demonstrating around your home, says Hempe. For instance:
• Is your child washing their own clothes?
• Are they brushing their teeth without you reminding them?
• Are they preparing their own school lunches?
• Are they taking care of a pet?
• Can they get up with an alarm, or are you still going in every morning to wake them up?
If your child can’t do all these things without guidance, that’s normal, but it’s also a sign that your child isn’t ready for the responsibility of a smartphone, says Hempe. “They are always going to be less mature on their phone than they will be in real life,” she adds.
Another big question to talk through with your child when the smartphone discussion comes up is, “Why do you need this?” According to Hempe, most kids want to have a phone to access social media. But in her view, it’s better to keep social media on laptop or desktop computers for as long as possible. “Smaller screens are much harder to manage than big screens,” she explains.
And what if your child wants a phone because everyone else has one? “That is not approaching it as a tool, so that’s your first teaching point,” says Rich. “This is not a status symbol, this is not a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses competition, this is about how we can use this very powerful and very useful but also potentially perilous tool.”
There are very legitimate reasons to have a cell phone, but both you and your child need to know what they are and how your child intends to use their phone.
So you’ve decided your child is ready. What next?
Your best bet is to start your child on the most basic model of phone that you can, says Knorr. If you can find a model that offers only talk and text, that’s ideal.
But even if you decide to go straight to a smartphone, you can and should strip it down to a basic level (by removing all apps, turning off data, and so on).
“Take everything off, and allow kids to earn the privileges of accumulating more apps as they demonstrate maturity,” says Knorr.
Model the use you want to see—and be clear about what you’re doing.
Set an example by using your own phone as a tool, and talk to your kids about how you’re acting purposefully. If you share a funny video on Facebook, for example, you could explain that you’re doing it to bring humor and joy to the lives of your friends. “You do have to say those things out loud to your kid,” says Knorr. “Kids will learn from your behavior, but it really helps reinforce good habits if you say what you’re doing and why.”
Use smartphones and other media devices with your kids.
Although parents need to establish boundaries around technology, that’s not your only (or even most important) role. Equally as significant, says Knorr is to get involved in your kids’ world and explore the positives of technology together. So ask your child about the games and apps they’re interested in, then learn to use those apps with them. Your purpose isn’t to manage your child’s use, but to bond and build up trust. In the process, though, you’ll get opportunities to reflect together on what you’re engaging in and share your media values with your child.
Carve out device-free spaces and times.
“It’s important to create these sacred spaces where there are no devices,” says Knorr. “That allows the family to stay connected even in a world that can be very disconnected.” Two of the most common ideas for device-free zones are:
• The dinner table: Mealtimes are an ideal time for family conversation, but having devices on the table distracts everyone.
• Bedrooms: Smartphones in the bedroom are known to interfere with sleep (for both adolescents and adults), says Knorr.
Adjust as needed.
The best way to know whether you need to make tweaks in your child’s phone use is to do regular overall “wellness checks,” says Knorr. In other words, is your child sleeping well? Are they eating well? Are they doing well in school? Are they doing well socially? Negative answers to those questions don’t necessarily mean the phone is the problem, but they are “clues that your child is going through something,” says Knorr. “Kids who are in crisis are more vulnerable to negative stuff online,” she adds.
As kids move closer to adulthood, they’ll need more and more independence, but getting there can involve some give and take. “If they do well, you give a little more leash. If they stumble, you pull back a little bit and help them have the scaffolding to make the right decisions,” says Rich. “This is very much a back and forth situation really throughout childhood and especially through adolescence.”
Jamie Santa Cruz is a mother, wife, and writer based in Colorado.