What’s the right age to get your child a cell or a smartphone? I wish I had a concrete, data-driven, definitive answer for you. I think the answer is a balance between what’s right for your family and when you think your child is responsible enough to manage the risk that comes with opening up an entire new world online and the risk that comes with losing something expensive. Research from Pew Research Center out this month (Feb 2018) finds that when it comes to adults, nearly all of us (95%) have a cell phone and 77% of us have a smartphone. But when it comes to parents specifically, we’re different– we’re all in it seems, 95% of parents with children under age 8 have a smartphone (not just a cell).  What we’re modeling in our own lives with our phones makes this even harder. If we are addicted to our phones what does it mean for our child? When it comes to having a child get a cell or smartphone of their own, Techcrunch reported in 2016 that children, on average, get a cellphone in the US at age 10.3 years. You may have strong reactions to that number.

The biggest reality IMO is that the biggest issue may not be the age of initiation for a phone or device but rather how we help our children use it, follow rules, and sincerely work to avoid “addiction” to it in life. We just don’t want to have our children (or ourselves!) pulled away from life in meaningful ways…this being alive thing is just too precious.

Half of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices, and the majority of parents (60%) feel their kids are addicted, according to a 2016 Common Sense report on tech addiction. A recent study (somewhat contested) of eighth-graders by Jean Twenge, author of iGen, found that heavy users are 56% more likely to say they are unhappy; 27% more likely to be depressed; and 35% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.

Common Sense Media launched a new campaign to protect young minds from the potential of digital manipulation and addiction. The campaign, called Truth About Tech, aims not just to help us as parents but also to influence the tech industry in making products less intrusive and less addictive.

In my family, I’ve told my boys we can talk about a cell phone at age 12. But we do let them use an iPod and an iPad and holy moly, it’s not easy….nor perfectly executed. When and how you introduce devices to your children will always be a personal decision — for you and your family — and it will always demand your longstanding attention and follow-along. The good news in the overwhelm, you can always change up the rules as you go, especially if the ones you make aren’t followed! The AAP Family Media Plan is a great tool to start the conversation together as a family and allows you to print it out and put it up in the house as an easy reminder of what was agreed upon.

Cell Phone Start Tips For Consideration:

I love Common Sense Media’s approach at helping us understand what’s happening as digital becomes not just routine but firmly embedded in our lives (their tips included here with little additions):

  • We know that heavy cell phone usage is associated with unhappiness. Yikes, nothing good here and I suppose nothing that surprising — we all can feel how our cell phones and the distraction they bring leave us sometimes dismayed.
  • Do your kids show a sense of responsibility, such as letting you know when they leave the house? Do they show up when they say they will? Being responsible is key, obviously, as you think about a personal device. One child may really differ in your home from the other which makes the start timing complex when “equal” for siblings is a big deal.
  • Do your kids tend to lose things, such as backpacks or homework folders? If so, expect they might lose an (expensive!) phone, too. Potential money out of your pocket and bigger sense of let-downs for kids. Check in on that together.
  • Do your kids need to be in touch for safety reasons? Maybe so but many other options from smartphones (cell phones alone, for example).
  • Would having easy access to friends benefit them for social reasons? Will it help connect and help them belong?
  • Do you think they’ll use cell phones responsibly — for example, not texting during class or disturbing others with their phone conversations? Lots of schools have no-phone policies, but still something you want to discuss.
  • Can they adhere to limits you set for minutes talked and apps downloaded? IF they don’t, are you able to follow-through and restrict privileges?
  • Will they use text, photo, and video functions responsibly and not to embarrass or harass others? Do they understand what a digital footprint is and that anything and everything they put online can be captured and shared?

Some safety Rules for children and smartphones from Common Sense Media.