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3 Things to Consider Before Buying Your Kid a Cellphone this Holiday

4 minute read

Holiday gift-giving is here. Is your child clamoring for a cell phone? If so, how do you know if she’s ready for one? And even more importantly, how do you know if you are?

For most of your younger child’s life, you have been the primary source of his socialization. In other words, he listened to you, trusted your judgment and looked to you for advice. However, once your child hits puberty, another socialization source begins to hold more power: his friends.

It can be a shock when your sweet kid starts worrying more about what her friends think than about kissing you goodbye at school drop-off. Don’t fret—this is developmentally normal and adaptive. Kids need to learn from people their own age about how to behave in order to fit into the world socially.

Around the same time this change occurs, many parents buy their kids a cell phone; the average age of first-time cell phone ownership in the United States is around 12 years. Once kids possess their own mobile phones, they can connect with their friends anywhere and anytime. For those of us old enough to remember childhoods without cell phones and constant screens, the fight over phones centered on getting an extension in one’s bedroom. But those phones were tethered to a wall, and there was always the risk that mom or dad would pick up and listen to the conversation. Not so in 2015.

The combustible combination of these two factors, puberty and mobile phone ownership, means that your kid will now have a tool to do what she is biologically programmed to do—ignore you and think constantly about her friends. It can be a disheartening experience for a parent. But rest assured, you get a few perks with your child’s device ownership.

First, you can now connect with your child via text anywhere she is. Second, if you put a tracker on the phone (such as “Find my iPhone”) you can locate her even if she ignores your text. As a working mom, I must say these conveniences helped mitigate a great deal of my anxiety when I traveled on business.

Ultimately, you need to determine if you’re ready to give your child a bit more independence in deepening his friendships away from you, both physically and psychologically. Likewise, you need to determine if your child is mature enough to handle the responsibility of caring for a phone as well as the subsequent social issues that can arise from access to social media and the like.

Here are three tips to help you evaluate whether you and your kid are ready for his first cell phone (adapted from my book Media Moms and Digital Dads):

1) If your child is telling you that “everyone else has a phone” (and of course it’s always the latest model), ask a few parents of their friends whether they have indeed bought a phone for their kids. Your child has likely only asked a few friends; in their world view, that may be everyone, but chances are the numbers are considerably less than everyone.

2) Ask yourself if your child is responsible enough for a phone? If she always misplaces her sweatshirts and homework, chances are she will lose her device.

3) If you’re feeling that it would be helpful for your child to have a phone, but you’d like to start slowly, you can choose to buy a cell phone rather than a smartphone.

Remember hat smartphones access the Internet, and children will take advantage of this feature. A study by the University of Basel examined differences in digital media use between teenagers with smartphones and those with conventional mobile phones. The teens with smartphones spent twice as much time on the Internet, an average of two hours per day, compared with one hour.

In the end, each family and kid are different, so the choice of when to give your child a phone is up to you. There is no magic age that experts have decided on. However, knowing what to expect and what questions to consider before you make the leap, will help your entire family get ready for the texting and selfie tsunami that will surely result.

Common Sense Media executive and child development expert Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D., is the author of Media Moms and Digital Dads

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