“Can I pleeeeeeze get a smartphone?”
If your child hasn’t yet popped the question, chances are you’ll hear it soon. Just what age is the right age to let kids have their own phone?
Pediatrician David Hornick, MD, suggests you consider four questions before saying yes.
“Talk with your child first. Do they hope to text, talk, use social media or browse the web?” he says.
A good discussion will reveal your child’s expectations for the device as well as any social pressures they’re facing.
Kids in late middle school are likely doing some things independently, so having a phone to keep in touch isn’t a bad idea. But maturity counts more than chronological age, he says.
And if talking and texting are the goals, regular cell phones without internet access are an option.
Dr. Hornick says successful smartphone use depends on parents being able to set limits like:
“Parents also need to monitor their child’s social activity on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and other channels,” he says. “Let them choose one or two social platforms; being on all of them will take up too much time.”
Banning phones from the bedroom is also important. Turn them off one hour before bedtime, and keep them off until morning, says Dr. Hornick.
Kids in middle school should be able to fall asleep within 30 minutes. Viewing any screen (smartphone, tablet, laptop, TV) before bed disrupts that process.
“You also don’t want kids checking social media at night or answering texts at 3 a.m.” he says.
Your child may argue that a smartphone can serve as their alarm clock. But any inexpensive alarm clock will work just fine and be much less tempting.
To control smartphone use, many parents sign pledges with their child. Both parties sign off on a series of rules — and the consequences for breaking them.
Pledges can be useful as long as you enforce the consequences. But that’s not so easy.
“Discipline is one of the most painful and uncomfortable aspects of being a parent, but it’s also incredibly important,” says Dr. Hornick.
In today’s world, it’s acceptable to buy a child a smartphone between 12 and 14 years of age, he says. But those aren’t magic numbers; your child’s maturity is what matters.
The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which allows us to act rationally, and control our urges and emotions, doesn’t fully develop until we reach our 20s. That’s why teens can be so impulsive.
“This lack of impulse control, coupled with peer pressure, can be disastrous for children not mature enough to handle the challenges of owning a smartphone,” says Dr. Hornick.
“Access to smartphones and social media has the potential to expose kids to bullying, sexting, pornography and violence.”
Parental controls can help you manage which sites your children visit on a smartphone. But kids can find ways to work around those settings, he cautions.
It’s easy to develop addictive behavior with smartphones. Let’s face it, they’re hard to put down.
But it’s important to get your own use in check. Then you can set a good example for appropriate limits for your children, he says.
“Kids will model their parents,” says Dr. Hornick. “Parents who are on their phones all the time are sending a message to their child that ‘it’s OK — and you can do it, too.’”
Not sure your child can handle a smartphone? Try lending him or her your phone for a short time first and supervise the activity, Dr. Hornick advises.
“See what your child does. Then talk about it together. It could be a good learning experience,” he says.