Is your child ready for a cell phone?

When your child should get a phone and how to set age-appropriate guidelines

Deciding whether your child is ready for a cell phone and setting the ground rules for how they can use it  is a challenge most parents face. We asked local experts to answer some of the most common questions parents have about cell phones and children.   

When should a kid get a cell phone? How do you know if they are ready to take care of one?

According to Jodie Lubarsky, director of Child Adolescent & Family Services at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth and Exeter, both age and readiness are specific to the family and child. She noted many parents tend to give cell phones to their children when they enter middle school.

“At this age, many youth are more involved with athletics and other after-school activities, so many families see the cell phone as a safety and communication device,” she said. “For many parents, especially those who work, this offers an opportunity to remain connected throughout the day and gives their child a means to contact them if there is an emergency.”

She said signs a child may not be ready for a cell phone include if a he/she is forgetful, easily loses things, or does not respect items in his/her possession.

Stephanie Vazzano, child and family therapist at Genesis Behavioral Health in Laconia and Plymouth, said it is important parents recognize the role technology plays in their children’s lives.

“For a lot of parents, cell phones and other technologies are something they’ve had to incorporate into their lives — for kids, it’s just there and is part of their world,” she said.

She said it is just as important for parents to be ready for cell phones, too. “Parents shouldn’t get kids a cell phone as a way to ‘spy’ or watch their kids’ every move and read every text — it’s a big

temptation for a lot of parents,” she said. “It’s important to remember, kids only grow when we give them opportunities to be outside their and our comfort zone.”

Can I get them a cell phone made specifically for kids? What are the safety features available on regular cell phones?

According to Maryann Evers, program director for early childhood programs at New Hampshire’s Child and Family Services, many smartphones have a tracking feature that enable them to be located if lost.

“You'll need to set up the phone with the tracking service before using it,” she said. “After you do that, you can see the phone's location on a map. The tracking app may also let you lock the phone remotely so no one who finds it can use it.”

Vazzano added that phones also have various features, such as password protected “guest modes” and “basic functionality,” that typically address the needs of parents. She added one caveat, however, for all parents.

“There are certainly many apps available for iPhone and Android which limit functions, but parents should use apps with caution because kids, particularly the older ones, can often find ways around them without much trouble,” she said.

According to Evers, prepaid phones are another option. To use the phone, parents pay a set amount to load it with minutes. When the minutes run out, parents can buy more before the phone can be used. “These devices usually have no long-term commitment and no contract, so you won't need to pay a cancellation fee if it doesn't work out,” she said.

Managing a child’s access to data is another important consideration for parents. “[Some] tools block further data usage after your child's usage reaches a limit of your choosing,” added Evers. “Your wireless service provider may also offer a way to restrict usage—for example, you could set a daily time limit for your child's phone use or prevent your child from texting or emailing photos.”

Vazzano said there is also merit in speaking directly to cell phone carriers. “They often can suggest phones, functions and plans that offer parents the control and peace of mind they want,” she said.

In setting rules for usage, is it age-specific? Should you take them away at night?

For Lubarsky, encouraging and recommending limits and rules around cell phone usage is critical. Such rules, however, should not be restricted to children.

“All family members, including parents, should respect the ‘no screen time’ rule during family meals and activities,” she said. “As parents, we need to remember to model the habits that we want our children to develop.”

She also recommended that parents take away cell phones at night. “We should all be shutting off electronics at least a half-hour before bed so we can begin to prepare for a restful sleep.”

Vazzano said it is also common for parents to take away a child’s cell phone after school and return it to them after their homework is done, although she said it is important to be practical.

“Taking a high-schooler’s phone for the entire time they are doing homework might actually impede their progress if they have group work or want to use peer support,” she said.

Lubarsky agrees and added, “Practices used for younger children don't often work for teens…the removal of a cell phone is devastating for a teen. I often remind parents that limiting access to a cell phone can be a very powerful consequence for a teen.”

Echoing Lubarky’s sentiments regarding no cell phone usage at the dinner table, Vazzano said another rule for teens, as well as parents, might be to place the cell phone in the trunk when driving.

“Whatever the expectations are, you as the parent need to model them,” she said. “Are you prepared to lock your cell phone in the truck when you’re driving and resist temptation to peek at your text messages while finishing dinner?”

Should you check your child’s text messages and browsing history?

According to Vazzano, newly emerging studies on kids and technology suggest that looking at texts, apps and browsing history with the kids on an occasional basis is the most effective way to monitor use.

“When kids and parents do this together, they can talk about errors in judgement and have a discussion about good decision-making, rather than simply giving a punishment,” she said.

Like Vazzano and Evers, Lubarsky acknowledged the challenge in balancing the need to respect a child’s privacy with their safety. She said parents must demonstrate, however, trust in their children and avoid any “sneaky approaches” regarding monitoring their cell phone usage.

“If parents are going to view and monitor usage, have a dialogue with your child about it,” she said. “Let your child know what you will be viewing and why so parameters are established and understood.”

Vazzano said another practical consideration parents should keep in mind is that the behavior kids have without technology is a good indicator of how they will behave with it.

“Parents who know their kids’ problem areas can use that to help tailor a plan for cell phone use and head off problems before they begin,” she said. 

Rob Levey is CEO of Exponential Squared, a marketing and organizational development company focused on helping businesses achieve their business goals and promote wellness in the workplace. You will find his freelance writing in numerous publications, including Parenting NH.

Categories: Technology and Social Media, Teens