Q: When should I give my child a cell phone?

A: Deciding to allow your child to have a cell phone is a big decision. There are pros and cons. There is no perfect age as to when to give your child a cell phone. What we do suggest is that when you make the decision you make it in the best interest of YOUR family and YOUR child. (I cannot tell you how many parents have said to me that they gave in way earlier then they planned because of peer pressure ‘all of their friends already have one’ AND when we talk amongst the parents they all wished that they had spoken with each other and they would have not done it so early.) With that said – even though cell phones are a regular household item in most homes, children need to be reminded that having a phone, and having access to any technology is a privilege not a right. They need to be reminded that if they misuse the privilege of having a phone that there will be logical consequences.

Cell phones are great tools to keep your children safe. They can always contact you if they need help, and you can easily locate them. There are important things to consider, though, because owning and using a cell phone requires common sense and good decision making. Keep in mind that if you haven’t had ongoing conversations with your child about their personal safety, body boundaries, Circle of Safe Adults, good and bad secrets, to name a few, then they are not prepared to have a cell phone.

There is no right age for a child to have a cell phone. You are the best person to judge your child’s maturity and their readiness for the responsibilities of a cell phone. However, science has proven that too much “screen time” damages the developing brain of very young children and that using social media can have an addictive effect and can become a bad habit that is hard to break.

Cell phones these days are just mini computers. Anything you can do on a computer, and any trouble you can get into, can also happen via a cell phone.

We have found that today’s parents, who have grown up with technology, are also increasingly comfortable handing their babies and toddlers screens without supervision or limits. As these children develop it puts them at risk for:

  • Exposure to harmful, age-inappropriate material
  • Encountering predators who use deception and manipulation to meet children online (often through seemingly innocuous apps and games)
  • Vicious and harmful cyber-bullying is also conducted, often with great secrecy and sneakiness, by young people using cell phones and social media sites. This behavior is impacting classroom dynamics in elementary school on a daily basis.

It’s a great idea to agree to a formal online agreement with your child when you decide to let them have a cell phone. Signing the agreement makes the decision a serious thing in your child’s mind. It will help them remember what is expected from them and that their cell phone will be taken away from them, if they break the rules.

When my son turned 14, I found this excellent contract written by Janell Burley Hoffman. I tweaked it for our family and it was an excellent way to have many important conversations with my son. Here’s a sample cell phone agreement. Change the rules to make them work for you and your child but both you and your child should sign it. The agreement will allow you to be “fair” if your child breaks the rules and you decide to take their cell phone away.

No matter what age you choose to provide your child with a cell phone consider what the child needs to know to manage the responsibility safely.

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