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For many parents, giving their child their first cell phone can be intimidating. Unlike driving, there’s no set age for teens to start having access to their own cell phones. The right time to get a cell phone is different for every student, but once your student has one, how can you ensure that they stay safe? From social media apps, to internet access, to unlimited texting capabilities, it can feel overwhelming for parents. So, we asked 5 experts to share their best tips parents can use for keeping kids safe before and after giving them their first phone.
1. The biggest indicator that a child is ready for their first cell phone is how they handle other responsibilities
Cory Peppler, Parenting Digital
Despite the focus we often put on age or grade level, the biggest indicator that a child is ready for their first cell phone is how they handle other responsibilities that we give them. How well do they care for the dog they begged for? Are we constantly reminding them about the chore chart on the fridge? How smoothly do they transition off the tablet without fussing after watching an hour of YouTube videos? If they’ve earned trust and proven maturity in these situations, those are good litmus tests.
Problems in the past shouldn’t be overlooked when making this decision. If there have been issues with sneakiness or watching things they shouldn’t, these will likely be amplified when you put a smartphone in their hand. If you’ve discovered the iPad under their bed, they are likely to violate the “no devices in the bedroom” rule with their phone. If your child has had difficulty in the past with these behaviors, start small and set restrictions when giving them their first cell phone.
We want to be able to trust our children, especially with devices that allow the outside world in. To do so, we have to start with trust that has been earned in both digital and non-digital situations.
2. There is no magic age when a child is ready for a cell phone
Hamna Amjad, Ridester
If you are wondering what the right age is to give your child a cell phone, there is no magic number. Instead, you should consider whether your child is mature enough to handle having a cell phone.
Here are some things to consider if your child really wants to have a cell phone:
- Does your child lose things easily?
- Does your child need the phone for safety reasons or just to play games?
- Do they want to be in touch with their friends on social media?
- Are they aware of the importance of having privacy? Do they know what to share and what not to share?
- Would having a cell phone affect their studies and other physical activities? Can they abide by the limits you set for them?
If your child understands all of the responsibilities, then there is no harm in getting them a phone. However, you still need to set a few rules before giving them their phone, such as no cell phones in their bedroom at night, at the dinner table, or during family time.
3. Validate your child’s feelings while reminding them that having a cell phone is a privilege and responsibility
Rebecca Edwards, SafeWise, @SafeWise
There is no right answer to this question, but typically parents wait until their children are at least between the ages of 10-12 to give them their first cell phone. The age may be older depending on your child.
When deciding the appropriate time to let your child use a cell phone, here are some things to consider:
- How is their temperament? Are they emotionally mature?
- Are they impulsive? Can they express their feelings with words?
- Do they lose things often? Are they able to take care of expensive things?
- Do they have self-restraint or self-discipline? How do they respond to limiting their screen time?
- Do they struggle with focusing?
- Do they understand technology and the concept of a digital footprint?
If you have a child that tends to make impulsive decisions, has difficulty focusing, or has a hard time picking up on social cues, you may want to start them out with a phone that is limited to only texting and calling capabilities.
Once you have decided that it’s an appropriate time for your child to get their own phone, have a conversation with them to talk about what the rules should be:
- Ask them why they want a phone and what they want to use it for.
- Validate their feelings and tell them that you understand why they want a phone, but remind them that it is a privilege and responsibility.
- Make your expectations clear before you give them the phone. Talk about your values, the pros and cons of using a smartphone, and the importance of setting limits (for everyone, not just kids).
- Be clear about what will happen if the expectations are not met.
- Decide together on acceptable consequences if the phone is broken or lost, they go over on data, they break screen time rules, post/text inappropriately, etc. Have a written agreement if you think it’s necessary.
- Talk about not only what you expect, but why. For example, no phones during designated homework time to make sure you can get your work done without distractions. Another rule might be that no one can use their phones during a certain period of time, so the family can spend time together and talk to each other in person.
- If they are allowed to use their phone for social media, have a separate conversation about their digital footprint and how their posts on the internet can affect their future. Emphasize the importance of showing restraint and being careful about what they post online (i.e. things you post now will be on the internet forever and could be seen by future employers or colleges).
- Follow the same rules you set for your children to model positive screen time behavior and reinforce the value that you place on the guidelines you have set. If you have different rules for yourself, then your guidelines will lose meaning.
4. Set up clear guidelines for all phone use
John DeGarmo, The Foster Care Institute, @DrJohnDeGarmo
Check your child’s phone nightly to see who is reaching out to them and who they are reaching out to. Remember, you are not your child’s friend, you are their parent. You are protecting them from predators and others who seek to harm them in some way. Become involved in your child’s life, interests, and activities, both online and offline.
Be persistent in warning your children about dangerous and inappropriate sites. Protective filters and browsers should be in place, helping to block your child from accessing these sites. Set up clear guidelines for all phone use with your child, and post these as a consistent reminder. Closely monitor your child’s online actions – as well as their cell phone – for any disturbing messages, texts, and pictures. Let them know you will be doing so.
Remind your student not to believe everything that comes across their phone. Teach your child to bring to your attention any site or contact that might be suspicious in nature. Keep credit card details somewhere safe where children can’t access them and never save credit card details online. Make sure that ‘click to buy’ options are not activated. Lastly, teach your child about the realities and dangers of child predators who prowl the internet, looking to target children.
5. Set a good example
Julia Cook, Parenting Expert
Before getting your child their first cell phone, ask yourself, “Does my child need a cell phone, or do they just want one?” Make sure you set a good cell phone user example for your child. For example, you cannot expect your child to not text and drive if they see you do it. For younger children, avoid phones with texting or IM capabilities. Program in all names and numbers that are important for your child to know. Discourage your child from answering numbers that he/she does not recognize. Thoroughly discuss how, when, and why the phone should be used.
For older children, reinforce the how, when, and why the phone should be used. Always expect your child to answer calls from you. Make sure the phone is turned off at night. Strongly discourage cell phone use during meals and other family times. Purchase the texting plan that works best for your family. Monitor your child’s text messages, phone calls, and times of usage. Have your child review your cell phone bill with you. Discuss and strongly discourage cyberbullying, sexting, texting/talking while driving, and other inappropriate cell phone behaviors. Establish and enforce realistic consequences for improper cell phone use.
Remember, the cell phone is never the cause of the problem…it’s the person using the cell phone that causes the problem.
6. Have an honest and open conversation about parental controls
Barb Harvey, Parents, Teachers and Advocates, Inc
Parents often wonder if using parental controls is an invasion of privacy. Consider the stage of life your children are in. Remember the stage of a two year old where they were constantly getting into things and exploring because they were curious? Teens are in the same stage, only they are now exploring the world of adulthood. When children are two parents can put them in a high chair or playpen to keep them safe. Now as a teen, we have parental controls for safety. It is a safety measure to monitor their curiosities and to answer their questions before they get bad advice or are preyed upon online.
The important thing here is to sit down and have an honest and open conversation about parental controls. You can start the conversation by saying, “this is not your phone, this is my phone. I am letting you use it. It is a privilege and I am going to monitor your use of it.” Then the conversation can go from there. I suggest using a monitoring tool that first flags inappropriate hashtags or abbreviations. Then, look for tools that will flag online bullying texts or posts.
You’ll also want to use time controls. Teens can get to talking at 9PM and not realize it is 1AM. A time limit helps teens control those late night calls. Once teens are old enough to go out at night with their friends, the times can be adjusted. Finally, use phone tracking, which is available on most iPhones. It’s important for parents to be able to tell where their teens are and a tracking program is ideal for this.
7. Utilize the phone as a learning device
Arvin Vohra, Vohra Method
Before a student gets a phone, parents should frame the phone as a learning device. The parents should have the student agree to use the phone educational training at least one hour per day. Once the student has the phone, it’s usually too late to build that habit. Because of their constant presence, phones are great for learning anything that needs to be memorized (vocabulary, language, states and capitals, etc.).
8. Just because other kids your child’s age have cell phones, doesn’t mean yours is ready
Holly Zink, Digital Addicts
Often, parents buy their child’s first cell phone when other kids their age start to get them. However, this is not always the right move. Many parents today are giving their child a smartphone before it’s really necessary for them to have one. The best time to get your child their first cell phone is when they start participating in activities and sports that require them to call you for a ride or tell you that they got home safely. Below are some tips to help your child prepare for their first cell phone:
Create a set of cell phone rules for them to follow. Before you get your child their first cell phone, create a set of rules that both you and your child agree upon. Some rules could include not using the phone during dinner, promptly responding to texts from you, and not messaging with strangers. Having cell phone rules that are set in stone prior to them getting their phone will help prevent any future confusion or arguments.
Ask your child what they would like in a phone. Often, parents just decide what phone to get their child based on what’s affordable. To make the cell phone search more enjoyable, ask your child what they would like in a phone. For example, your child may want a cell phone with a great camera so they can take photos.
Have them interact with cell phones at your local seller. Since they haven’t handled cell phones before, it’s important to let your child interact with them at your local seller. See what they like or dislike, and give them the opportunity to ask the cell phone sellers questions. This will better inform your child about potential cell phone options, how to use them, and other technical aspects.
9. Use a smartphone alternative for your child’s first phone
Dr. Gary Brown, Family Counselor, @GaryBrownPHD Parents can start their child with a smartphone or, for the youngest cell phone users, introduce your child to the idea of a “dumb phone”. That is a phone that you can only use for phone calls and texting. You would not use it to gain internet access. This provides a level of safety that a smartphone with childproof software cannot offer. Parents who have made this choice with kids as young as 9-10 have found this to be the more stress-free alternative.
10. Use cell phones to teach your student financial responsibility
Airto Zamorano, Numana SEO, @NumanaSEO
If you’re debating whether or not to give your child their first phone, consider turning it into an exercise that will teach your student financial responsibility. Create a tracker for your child’s chores and assign a budget for the cost of their phone, plus their allowance. Each chore should equal a dollar amount, so if they fail to complete one, then they lose some of their weekly budget. Children really enjoy this sense of responsibility and the freedom of having their own phone.
Instead of using age as an indicator that your child is ready for their first cell phone, monitor how they handle other responsibilities. Once your child has proven their maturity and earned trust in both digital and real-life situations, they are ready for their first cell phone. To help your child develop a healthy relationship with screen time, set guidelines and explain the purpose of each one before giving them access to their first phone. Some parents might find it helpful to write the guidelines down on paper and create a family cell phone contract.
Regardless of whether or not your child is ready for their first cell phone, it’s important to have regular a discussion with them, model positive screen time behaviors, and monitor how they handle other responsibilities.
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