It's a conversation all parents will have -- it's only a matter of when. It starts with "Puleeeeeeze! All my friends have one!" Kids -- all kids -- want one, badly. The target of their desires, of course, is the ubiquitous, must-have cell phone.
Studies conducted by Pew Research Center have found that 78 percent of teens now own and operate cell phones; almost half of these are smartphones. While cell phones can facilitate communications between parents and teenagers, there is a growing cohort of nine- and ten-year-olds walking around with smartphones in their pockets. Which means there are kids cooped up inside using their thumbs on small screens rather than playing outside and using their imaginations.
When is a child responsible enough to handle such an entertaining and distracting device? I've talked with a number of parents who all agree that the "right" age varies but the questions to ask remain the same. Here are the top considerations:
1. What's the key motivator for purchasing this new device?
Without a doubt, safety is the most important consideration for parents. They see cell phones as a critical means of determining their child's well-being and whereabouts, especially when schedules change. If they're involved in extra-curricular activities, a cell phone can help organize rides or adjust pick-up times. More important, if a child is in trouble, there's a way to connect quickly.
There are various phones with safety features, depending on your carrier. Verizon Wireless offers the LG Migo, a very simple and very child-friendly phone. It has four programmable keys as well as a dedicated emergency key. Recommended by many parents for children 8-12, the Migo is a great first phone for kids on the go.
2. What restrictions will you place on phone use?
I babysat for a family that limited the children to just 10 minutes of "screen time" a day. This encouraged them to be more creative in how they spent their time, like playing outside or digging in to a good book. This type of structure helps create an appropriate child-phone relationship.
Additionally, many parents find it beneficial to take the phone away from their child at night since it often prevented them from sleeping. According to sleep specialist Dr. Lisa Shives, "There's a little-known physical component to screen time. A phone's light delays the release of sleep-inducing melatonin produced by the brain, thus interfering with the body's natural sleep process."
Discuss your child's phone plan with them. They need to know that talk time and texting are neither free nor unlimited. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that kids spend an average of 33 minutes a day talking on a cell phone. Middle and high schoolers spend an average of 95 minutes sending 118 messages (a.k.a., T-bombing) a day.
3. Are they really ready for the responsibilities?
Let's face it: they don't want a phone so they can talk to you. They want to be able to text and call their friends -- whatever and whenever they please. This crave to connect peaks around the time they are entering middle school. You need to consider what they could be saying -- and what pictures they could be sending -- to others. Is your child mature enough to know what to share (and not)? Whether this maturity comes through age or direction, it's your responsibility to educate them on the dangers of inappropriate sharing.
Concerns for safety and security intersect when a cell phone is lost. Of course there are the financial concerns. But many phones contain a trove of personal information that, in the wrong hands, can be very dangerous. If your child, for whatever reason, lacks the skills to oversee the use and care of a phone, postpone this purchase. The process could be effectively used as a means to develop the needed skills. The motivation is certainly there!
4. You're getting a phone for your child. Smartphone or cell phone?
Save your wallet and your sanity by starting with a very basic phone and plan. Parents with whom I have talked agree that a young child doesn't need (and shouldn't have) constant access to the Internet; plus it's an extra $20-$50/month. Yes, there are some educational apps that can benefit your child. But let them explore on your tablet or smartphone and data plan.
At the end of the day there is no perfect age to give your child a cell phone. Due to peer pressure and the need to connect with friends and family, you have a decision to make: when -- not if -- to buy your child a cell phone. Consider the options and form some rules and restrictions before you make the purchase. Technological times may be a-changin' but good parenting should not.
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