Q: My son is 10 years old and will be entering middle school in the fall. He keeps asking me for a cell phone, claiming that all his friends at school already have one. Is my son too young for a cell phone or am I too afraid to let him grow up?
A: As technology has advanced and become entrenched in every aspect of life, the debate on when children should be able to use a cell phone has grown. It is important to remember that each child is different and there are a multitude of factors that can influence if your child is ready for a cellphone.
Responsibility should be considered, and is perhaps the most important factor. Children must demonstrate that they are responsible enough to have a phone. Children who constantly lose things or disrespect property might not be mature enough yet for a cell phone. If a child often loses their cell phone and gets consequences for such, the phone can turn into a negative experience for all. If a child is generally able to take care of their things well, that is a good sign they might be ready for a phone. Proper usage is also a responsibility, that is, the ability to either self-regulate usage (such as doing homework versus using their phone) and/or the ability to follow the parent’s rules about when and how the phone can be used.
Children are becoming more and more tech savvy, so it is imperative parents understand the capabilities of their child’s cell phone and consider taking steps to limit usage. Depending on the needs of you and your child, restricting data access can be beneficial (and cost effective). Cell phone carriers can provide advice about plans that will work best for you and your child. Many phones also include child-mode features that limit usage to basic functions. Once the phone has been properly set up, it is crucial that you talk to your child about the privileges that come with using a cell phone. Restricting your child’s cell phone usage to certain times (e.g., after schoolwork is finished) can promote positive behavior. Remember that limits on cell phone use will vary according to your child’s age. For instance, taking away a teenager’s phone may be seen as a sign of mistrust and could result in hostility. In addition, make sure that you model the expectations you set up for your child by putting your phone away during meal times or while driving.
Age and grade relate to some practical considerations. Typically, when children enter middle school they become more involved with extra-curricular activities. A cell phone gives your child the ability to stay in touch with you regarding their whereabouts, schedule (e.g., soccer practice is cancelled) or call you in the event of an emergency. Your child having a phone can thus also be convenient for the parents as the child is easier to reach and coordinate with. The biggest takeaway? Only you know your child well enough to know if they are ready for the responsibilities that accompany owning a cell phone. If you determine your child is not quite ready, and they are asking for a phone, set some concrete markers they can strive for that would indicate to you they are ready for a phone.