My daughter had a heart-to-heart with me about getting a phone. She feels like she’s missing out on a lot by not having a phone. Namely, her friends’ group chat.
I told her that I understood, but that I think the risks outweigh the rewards right now. She’s 12 years old, and most of her friends have phones. We also had the fairly regular conversation about how we don’t do things just because other people do them.
We had the [also fairly regular] talk about how our family is different in a lot of ways and I truly believe she will appreciate it when she gets older. We also don’t watch TV—other than the occasional family movie—so we’re left out of conversations regarding the funniest new commercials or what point we’re at in a TV series.
The conversation with my daughter was interesting, but it gets even better in our household…
Phones and Maturity Level
While I was in the middle of writing this article, a situation came up with our oldest son, who just turned 13. He brought home a phone that he said was given to him. We later found out that he actually saw it fall out of his classmate’s pocket and he took it.
But wait! There’s more!
When I went through the phone’s contacts and found “Daddy,” I send a message to get the phone back to the kid. That’s when I figured out that the child my son stole from had actually stolen this phone from someone else! The desire to fit in and have a fun, handheld device is real. This is why we stay so connected with our children. We constantly ask them about their day and everything going on in their life.
These “funny” moments in life are learning points. What’s the first thing my son did with this newly acquired phone? He searched for all the inappropriate content he could find on YouTube. Thankfully it was mostly inappropriate music videos; it could’ve been much worse.
We helped him see why he isn’t mature enough to own a smartphone yet, and I really feel like it clicked. We’re now awaiting a meeting with our son, the principal, and the two other students. It’s going to be interesting.
These conversations with my kids sparked the idea behind this article. It brought up some important questions about children and phones. Are we limiting our kids socially by not allowing a phone until later than average? Which, by the way, the average age a child owns a smartphone today is around 10.1 On that note, should your kid have a smartphone or a… [gasp], “regular” phone (yes, they still make phones that only make phone calls, which I will refer to as “dumbphones” from here on).
Need-Based, Not Age-Based
Bill Gates says 14 is the “safest” age to give a child a cell phone.2 While I actually love the fact that he advocates for a later age than most parents, I don’t think it’s something we should put a number on.
If your kid is 14, and they walk home from school alone, or if they have a babysitting job that keeps them away from home sometimes, or if they have a part-time job working away from home… then sure, it’s a good age for a cell phone. But if they’re never left alone, and they’re always in the care of an adult… do they need a phone? I don’t think so. It’s something for you to think about.
My friend’s oldest [of six] son just started babysitting the younger children, at 12 years old. Now he has a phone. Because it makes sense from a practical standpoint. What if an emergency comes up? He needs a phone.
Those situations shouldn’t give full rights to a cell phone though. The average US consumer spends 5 hours a day on mobile devices.3 Not my child.
There’s a big difference between getting your child a phone to use during certain circumstances or a dumbphone for added safety, and getting your child a smartphone with open internet access 24/7.
24/7 internet access for teens (and younger) is happening more and more.
Here’s how it goes. A child turns a certain age or a need arises one time, and next thing, a smartphone comes to the rescue. You’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve done it. No judgement from me. But we have to think deeper into such an important issue. Given all the things a child can get into with an internet-accessible phone, I think it’s worth taking the extra time.
James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that reviews content and products for families, has a strict rule for his family: His children get a smartphone only when they start high school — after they have learned restraint and the value of face-to-face communication.4 I think that’s brilliant. And it’s intentional.
Along those lines, here are a few things to consider before getting your child a phone:
- Do they need a phone?
- Are they responsible enough to own a phone?
- Are they pushing you to get them a phone? If so, why?
- Can they be trusted with a phone when you’re not there to monitor how they use it?
- Who is paying for the phone and the plan?
A phone is a gateway to many great things, and many more not-so-great things. There is a lot of power in that small device. It’s a big decision.
Social Concerns & Risk Vs. Reward
As I said, my daughter wants a phone to chat with her friends. Am I limiting her socialization by not allowing her a phone? In some ways, yes. But after talking to her, I think it may have more to do with her friends’ perception of her not having a phone. That’s what she doesn’t like.
Don’t get me wrong, a phone is a huge source of social interaction in today’s world. I’m just not so sure that it’s a good medium to be using at 12. Everyone is constantly talking about how much teens are on their phones,5 and once these teens hit their 20s, it doesn’t change much. Nobody likes to have dinner with someone who is constantly on their phone. I realize it’s an epidemic, and I don’t want my kids to get caught up in it.
Technology is raising children in today’s world. It’s common to see a family at a restaurant, while the children’s faces are stuck in a phone, whether mom and dad’s phone or their own. In fact, a popular reason to get kids their own phones is so the parents can bury their faces simultaneously.
Smartphones destroy family conversation.6
When my daughter came to me with her concern of not having a phone, I assured her that her emotions were legitimate, and that she isn’t wrong for feeling like she should have a phone to interact with her friends. When I pointed out the reasons why I don’t think she’s ready for a phone, she had an even better understanding. We discussed some scary statistics from a recent study:7
- 33% of parents and teens argue daily about device usage
- 50% of children admit to being addicted to their devices
- 72% of teens feel they must immediately respond to texts
- 78% of teens check their devices at least hourly, often more
We all know this is true. The same study found that 48% of parents feel the need to immediately respond to messages as well, so it’s not just our children. We have to make sure we’re setting the right example of healthy cell phone use. Our kids are watching our actions more than they’re hearing our words.
It’s not just about technology addiction. There is the “other” addiction you have to worry about when it comes to smartphones.
Smartphones and Pornography PSA
Now for a brief interruption and a public service announcement. I’m going to be blatant here, and call it like it is.
Pornography is more easily accessible than ever, and it can ruin your child’s life. Earlier exposure so often leads to a lifelong addiction. 93% of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to pornography in adolescence 8.
Pornography exposure at a young age can be devastating to a child’s future sex life,9 10 and it all too often stems from parents being too lazy to monitor their children’s internet activity. Or simply too lazy to parent and letting the smartphone do it. I know I’m being harsh, but that’s because it’s serious.
If your child is using the internet without any sort of monitoring, please wake up! There’s a strong chance that pornography has already entered their life.
Whether this is already an issue, or you’re concerned with it becoming an issue, I highly recommend accountability software like Covenant Eyes. We personally use it on all of our devices, to keep everyone accountable. They aren’t paying me to say that; I just think it’s that important.
If you only take away one thing from this entire article, let it be about this point. Intentional parenting requires us as the parents to get involved in what our kids are doing. A teen living at home should get a certain amount of privacy, but not when it comes to electronic devices like this. It’s not worth risking their future for privacy’s sake.
If you don’t believe pornography is a true evil in the world, you may not know all the facts. On top of all the psychological effects, human trafficking is a real part of the internet pornography industry, and when someone looks at porn, they’re contributing to the industry. Look at these scary statistics on how porn is poisoning the world.
Now back to your scheduled program.
What Age is the Right Age?
Again, I think children should get their own phone when they need one, not when they want one. We’ve been telling our children for a few years that they can have a phone if they come up with a good enough reason to own one. They have yet to do so, but they’ve tried. And eventually there will be a good enough reason. But as it stands, they’re never alone without access to an adult who has a phone.
If you agree that this should be a need-based decision, then you will know when it’s the right time. But just for fun, let’s go through each age group and see what the experts say.
Today’s Parent released a great age-by-age guide on smartphones.11 Here were they key findings…
- Under 4 – No phone necessary.
- Age 4 to 6 – A phone can be dangerous at this age. The brain is still developing and social skills can be impacted. Your child is much more likely to become addicted to technology by having a phone at this age.
- Age 7 to 9 – The experts say “no phones.” Sure, you could argue that this is old enough to have a phone, but the brain is still in a serious developmental stage, and all technology has a major impact at this age.
- Age 10 to 12 – At this age, experts recommend the potential of kids owning a phone only to call their parents. It’s still not the right age for a smartphone, or at least not one with internet access. A ScienceDaily study shows that girls are particularly affected at this age, often negatively, by owning a smartphone.12
- Over 12 – Teens should wait until they’re 16 if at all possible. The later the better, really. But 13 and on is a reasonable age to have a phone. It’s still best to limit or eliminate internet access until at least 16.
I know you may want a specific age put on the decision. That’s as close as I can get. The main thing is to wait until it’s absolutely necessary.
It’s easy to give into the “everybody’s doing it” pressure and get your child a phone. So many kids have them by 12, and often younger, that it’s hard to know your kid is one of the few without one.
As I say to my kids, nobody ever looks back on the last year, or 5 or 10 years, and says “I wish I would’ve spent more time watching TV and using my phone.”
Not having a phone won’t ruin their life, but it just might save their future.
Finding a Solution
My entire goal behind this article is to leave you with a solution that’s right for you. Since I can’t possibly know your exact situation, here are some ideas.
If you feel like your child isn’t mature enough for a phone yet, don’t get them a phone. If there is no real need for a phone (i.e. your child doesn’t go to any events alone), then there is no real reason for a phone.
If you feel like your child does need a phone, but you don’t trust them with a smartphone, consider getting them a dumbphone. They still make plenty of basic flip phones. Personally, I wouldn’t trust any teen with a smartphone. I know how prevalent inappropriate content is, and filtering services can be expensive, so a dumbphone seems like a great solution.
If you decide to get your kid a smartphone, or if they already have one (it’s difficult, but still possible, to take it away once they have it), then here are some final guidelines I would suggest:
- Make sure you have the password to the device
- Let your child know that you have the right to take it away at any point, if you see a reason
- Set limits on the time your child can spend on their phone
- Set the finance rules in stone, as far as who is paying for the phone and data, and what happens if the child uses additional data
- Decide what will happen if the phone is broken or stolen, and who will pay for it
- Specify off-limit times when your child is not allowed to use the phone (e.g. dinner, bed time, etc.)
- Explain that you have the right to monitor everything your child is viewing, at any time, including text messages and social media
Those recommendations are based on what the Child Mind Institute suggests.13 I summarized their recommendations, and highlighted the most crucial pieces.
Remember that you have the overall say when it comes to your child having a phone. You make the call; your child doesn’t.
Further Book Reading
- Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle
- Parenting the Smartphone Generation by Gregory L. Jantz
- Parent Alert by Geddes, Sawalha & Adams
- Your Brain on Porn by Gary Wilson
- The Porn Myth by Matt Fradd
- Exposed by Elle West
Last Updated: June 12, 2020
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- Influence Central Staff. (2016). Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today’s Digital Natives. Influence Central.
- Curtin, M. (2017, May 10). Bill Gates Says This Is the ‘Safest’ Age to Give a Child a Smartphone. Inc.
- Flurry Staff. (2017. March 2). U.S. Consumers Time-Spent on Mobile Crosses 5 Hours a Day. Flurry Analytics Blog.
- Chen, B. (2016, July 21). What’s the Right Age for a Child to Get a Smartphone? The New York Times.
- Ungar, M. (2018, January 16). Teens and Dangerous Levels of Cell Phone Use. Psychology Today.
- Suttie, J. (2015, December 7). How Smartphones Are Killing Conversation. Greater Good Magazine.
- Caldwell, Fisher, Price. (2016). Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance. Common Sense Media.
- Finkelhor, Sabina, Wolak. (2008, December 11). The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth. CyberPsychology & Behavior.
- Ross, C. (2012, August 13). Overexposed and Under-Prepared: The Effects of Early Exposure to Sexual Content. Psychology Today.
- Owens, Behun, Manning, Reid. (2012, April 9). The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research. The Journal of Treatment & Prevention.
- Stein, S. (2018, March 21). An age-by-age guide to kids and smartphones. Today’s Parent.
- BioMed Central. (2018, March 19). Social media use at age 10 could reduce wellbeing of adolescent girls. ScienceDaily.
- Cohen, D. (2018). When Should You Get Your Kid a Phone? Child Mind Institute.