When Should You Give Your Child a Smartphone

two boys on smart phone

Raising children in a technology-rich culture has radically changed the types of issues that parents may face.  Sexting, cyberbullying, and privacy issues are just some examples of the challenges faced by modern parents. Many of those issues surround a child’s access to technology. More specifically, “what exactly is the right age to give your son or daughter a smartphone?”  This is one of those questions that seems to come up almost every time I have a conversation with a group of parents around technology use. My wife and I are having this discussion in our own home as well. We’ve got a nine year old with a birthday coming up. He’s asked on multiple occasions for a smartphone for his birthday or Christmas. Ten years old initially seemed a bit early to us.  However, after doing some research, we discovered the average age for getting a smartphone in America is 10.3 years. Age is just a number though, and it should not be the deciding factor in such a significant decision. After doing a bit of thinking, researching and speaking with colleagues, age shouldn’t be part of the conversation at all. This is a not a decision to be taken lightly. Let’s look at all of the factors that come into play when considering a smartphone for your child.

Don’t Take This Decision Lightly

As adults, we often forget how powerful a smartphone can be.  We have become so accustomed to having one that panic quickly sets in when your phone goes missing, even for the briefest of moments.  Parents need to be overwhelming clear about the magnitude of this decision. While using a smartphone, your child can create and distribute images, videos, and text to a global audience even without a cellular data plan.  Creating and sending a video to a friend could easily result in that same friend uploading the video to Twitter, YouTube, or any number of media outlets. The thrill of getting likes or hits online can be too tempting to pass up. The distribution is virtually unlimited, and once content has been placed online, it can be nearly impossible to remove.  This can lead to more significant issues with bullying, shaming, and similar concerns. Also, the GPS and location data along with the potential for unintentional oversharing by your child can be used by predators who seek to communicate or even harm a child. These are just a few of ways this decision can impact your child’s life. This isn’t meant to scare you (although it should).   It is a reminder that this is not a decision that should be taken lightly.

Questions to Ask Yourself

There are countless resources online that give guidelines for parents who are considering getting their child a smartphone. Common themes arise when you take the time to read through all of the material available.

  • How does the child handle tablets and gaming systems now?  When asked to wrap up, do they comply with ease or is it a constant battle?  Do they appear to obsess of electronics now? If the relationship with technology isn’t a healthy one now, providing them with a smartphone will only compound the problem.
  • A smartphone is an avenue for quick and easy communication with their peers.  Is there a positive social benefit for this in your household?
  • Does your child lose things easily?  This is an expensive item to lose.
  • Have you taught your son or daughter about the ethical, responsible use of a smartphone?   For example, do they know not to use the phone to belittle or embarrass others? Do they understand the implications of bullying, sexting, and oversharing?
  • Are you going to use an application or device to monitor the usage?  (Hint: YES!)

These questions are designed to help parents begin to think through the decision.   I would encourage all parents to do additional research through sites like Common Sense Media and ConnectSafely.

Next Steps

You’ve done the research, had the hard conversations, and have decided to give your son or daughter a smartphone.  Now what? Here are some next steps to consider before handing over the device.

  • Create a set of rules together.  Sit down with your soon to be smartphone owner and develop a set of guidelines for the use of the device.  There are several templates online that can be used as a starting point. It is essential to include them in the creation of these rules and the consequences for an infraction.   Making them a part of the process will lead to them having buy-in to the plan. The rules and outcomes for misuse may be different for each child in your household, and that’s ok.  The guideline should be tailored to the individual instead of a one size fits all approach. Lastly, be cognisant of flexibility when creating these guidelines. Don’t be too rigid. Give them room grow and adapt over time.   
  • Model the behavior you expect of your kids.  For example, if the rules you create stipulate no smartphone use at the dinner table, you need to put your phone away during that time as well.    
  • Finally, don’t allow the smartphone to take away from quality, face to face interactions with your children.   This is some of the best advice I found when researching. It is far too easy to allow the quick back and forth convenience of a text message to replace a real dialogue.   Remember to focus on the quality of conversations you’re having, not the quantity. In my opinion, one strong interaction is much better than ten weaker ones.

Summary

The question “What exactly is the right age to give your son or daughter a smartphone?” is misleading. The answer doesn’t lie in the age of the child. The better question to ask would be “Is my child developmentally ready for this responsibility?”.  Smartphones have become part of everyday life. As parents, you need to educate your son or daughter on the appropriate, ethical use of a smartphone. Everyone involved needs to understand the potential risks when going down this path. Parents should work with their young adult to develop a flexible set of rules and consequences to ensure correct usage.  Providing your son or daughter with a smartphone can be a positive for everyone in the house when the proper support strategies are in place.