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When is the ‘right’ age to give kids a smartphone?

A common question that many parents grapple with- when is the ‘right’ age to give kids a mobile phone?

Put simply, there’s no universal, or prescriptive chronological age that’s deemed ‘right’ or ‘safe’ to give kids a mobile phone. Kids all mature at different rates making it difficult to specify an exact age at which they’d be ready to own or even use a smartphone (ownership and use are two different topics as well). Families also have different motivations that prompt them to consider giving kids a phone- for some families, it’s a safety issue (wanting reassurance that their children/teens are safe on the way to or from school or extracurricular activities), for others it’s a peer-acceptance decision (I often hear, “She’s the only one in her peer group without a phone. I don’t want her to ostracised.”)

Remember when you’re giving your child a phone you’re giving them a lot more than just a ‘phone’. You’re giving them a (very) powerful communication and media-production tool (that’s capable of taking videos and photos and a device that has an Internet connection). They can create images, videos and written messages (and a hybrid of all three) that can be uploaded and digitally distributed at the click of a button. They can download apps and games which allow them to interact with virtual strangers. 

Whilst most parents assume their kids are tech-savvy (which they likely are), it doesn’t mean that they also have the emotional maturity and responsibility that comes along with owning and using a smartphone.

So before you buy your child or teen a phone, here are some things to consider:

// A child’s chronological age isn’t the chief determining factor. The everyone else’s child has a phone, so I should probably buy my child one argument isn’t a strong case (in my humble opinion). Everyone else’s’ children may be given a phone when they’re 13 (or 8 or 10 years), but that doesn’t mean that your child is emotionally and cognitively ready to deal with the demands of a smartphone. You may know that your son lacks the emotional maturity to use a smartphone safely and responsibly. 

Trust your instincts on this one. I’m yet to meet a parent who believes that they really disadvantaged their son/daughter because they waited too long to give them a phone. However, I certainly see the opposite scenario where parents regret their decision to prematurely provide a phone. Remember, your children never get their childhood and adolescence back. There’s no hurry to prematurely dunk them in the digital stream.

// Is your child able to adhere to rules and boundaries without your constant supervision? Given that your child can download apps, share photos and videos via messaging apps, they need to be aware that they’re curating their digital DNA. That silly photo, rude message or partially clothed video can be easily distributed online and can have devastating immediate or delayed consequences. I’ve worked with many young people who have discovered that inappropriate photos that they shared when they were 14 have resurfaced and been disseminated when they’re in their 20s. Whilst there are now laws in place to deal with such situations (image-based abuse laws), often the damage has been done. 

Young people lack the brain architecture to moderate their decisions and we know teens and tweens are very impulsive (because the part of the brain that helps them to manage their impulses isn’t fully developed). Remember, incriminating digital content is like Vegas- what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet. Many young people are under the misguided belief that they can delete or remove content, or that it instantly vanishes. Whilst content can be deleted or removed, it can sometimes be digitally-captured by peers or other people.

Remember, incriminating digital content is like Vegas- what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet.

// Are they responsible with their belongings? If they constantly misplace their lunchbox or school jumper, then giving them a digital device that’s worth hundreds of dollars may not be the best thing to do. Determine if they’ll be able to also be responsible for managing the physical device and also possibly paying and managing the data that comes with it.

// Are they resilient? Coping with unkind text messages or social media posts places extra emotional demands on young people.  Do they lack the confidence and resilience to deal with such demands? Are you available to help them navigate this digital terrain? Please don’t hand over a smartphone and expect that your child will learn how to use it respectfully and responsibly through osmosis.  They need to be explicitly taught (and reminded because their frontal lobe is still developing so their working memory isn’t at its sharpest) about how to behave online. This isn’t a one-off conversation.

// Is a smartphone the answer?  If you want to simply keep your child safe en route to and from school, then perhaps consider a smartwatch. There are a range of kid-specific watches that provide minimal functionality such as GPS-tracking and the provision to make and receive calls. (I don’t want to endorse particular products, as I haven’t personally used any of these products myself or with my kids.) And remember, if you want to keep your kids updated with changes to after-school plans, call the school office and not your child/teen. So many teachers tell me that it’s not students ringing or messaging each other in class, it’s their parents!

If you do decide to give your child a phone then consider these strategies:

// Establish firm BOUNDARIES before they get the phone. In consultation with them (don’t simply enforce the rules on them), determine what can they download/use/play? When and where can they use the phone (and also when and where are they prohibited from using it)? With whom are they to interact with on the phone (and what do they do when they’re approached by someone they don’t know)?

// Keep the rules minimal- teens don’t have fully-developed working memory, so keep the phone rules simple. Some good ones I’ve heard: “Keep it clean and keep it clothed.” “Your phone is like footballer- nothing good happens after midnight.” 

// Install Internet-filtering tools on the device (especially if they’re new to having a phone). I recommend the Family Zone as it allows you to set limits on what they can download/play/watch and when they can use the device (so if you can’t be at home to supervise them doing their homework, you can set study hours that will restrict their access to SnapChat during that window of time). Remember, as adults, we struggle to self-regulate our phone habits, so don’t expect that your teen will be able to moderate their phone use.

// Keep devices in publicly-accessible spots in your home and most importantly keep them out of bedrooms. Your teen is much less likely to send a ‘nude’ when they’re sitting scrolling through their phone on the kitchen counter, but they’re much more likely to do it in their bedroom.

// Minimise phone use at night. Not only does phone use at night contribute to poor sleep quality and quantity, but we also know that most cyberbullying occurs at night. Why? The logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex which manages their impulses amongst other tasks, switches off at night and the limbic brain, the emotional centre of the brain, switches on. Ever noticed your teen becomes emotional at night? This means your child or teen is much more vulnerable to potential cyberbullying at night because their emotional brain is in the driver’s seat and their logical brain is offline.

// Do regular, but intermittent screen audits with them. I’m not talking about sneaking into their room and going through their phone while they’re in the shower (chances are they’ll have a lock screen picture taking apps installed like Lockwatch, or Third Eye, I GotYa installed which secretly takes a photo of anyone who attempts to unlock the phone with the incorrect password). Do them regularly, but not at set times (i.e. don’t set a reminder in your calendar to go through their phone every Sunday at 3pm) because they’ll remove or delete content in anticipation of your inspection.

// Teach them how to use it respectfully and responsibly. We’d never toss our kids in the ocean and hope that they learn to surf, yet we do this to our kids and teens in the digital world. They need explicit and ongoing conversations about how to use smartphones and social media in the correct ways. Discuss openly and often about what they post online, how they respond to others online and constantly remind them about their digital DNA that they’re curating.

Now I know I’ve said that  there’s not a specific chronological age that would determine that kids are ready for a smartphone, but from my observations as a mum and as a former teacher and knowing what I know about technology, digital distractions and the developing brain, I’d be reluctant to give a child a mobile phone before 12 years of age. I understand that there may be extenuating circumstances that would mean a child would need a phone (perhaps they use a phone app to monitor their diabetes). However, in most circumstances I don’t believe kids in primary school need access to their own smartphone.

This is an example of one of the many digital dilemmas that Kristy tackles in her parent seminars. Kristy has spoken to tens of thousands of parents, educators, health professionals and students throughout the country about the impact of technology on student wellbeing and learning. Enquire about Kristy speaking at your school or event here.

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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