Smartphones are complicated. Children are complicated. What happens when you mix the two? A whole lot of questions, and complex answers. It is not always easy to get the right answers when you are trying to parent in today’s world, and technology is constantly changing so that even the ideas and technological landscape of five years ago isn’t as relevant anymore.
Still, this is important. There are many scary things online, and children might not be savvy enough to take care of themselves completely with a cell phone or smartphone. It’s giving them a lot of freedom, and that can be scary.
The good news is that you are not alone, and you have more information and power than you think. While we cannot go into every detail on the subject, here is some information that should help you while you are figuring out when to get your children a smartphone and how you should let them use it:
Let’s get the scary stuff out of the way first. There are threats and problems online, most of which can be accessed through a smartphone. There might also be issues that involve other people, which only complicate matters further.
On the other side of these fears, there is often not too much that you need to worry about when your child is younger or inexperienced with technology, or otherwise well-behaved. Most kids are not going to try to buy drugs on the dark web or engage in cryptocurrency scams. They might stumble into troubling situations without proper guidance, but you can warn them (in age-appropriate terms) about the potential dangers online. You also will have the ability to control access on all but the oldest and cheapest smartphones. It is a highly advertised feature for a reason.
Something else you might want to do is simply ask your child what they want to do on a potential smartphone. If you have a good relationship, they will likely be honest with you, if not tell you everything. If you know what your kids want, you can make the best decision and compromise for them.
You should know that while smartphones can be incredibly useful and necessary for adult life, there are major problems stemming from overuse that we are just starting to figure out. There have been longstanding debates on the effects of screentime on children and especially excessive screentime. Giving someone a smartphone is likely to increase their screen time by hours a day, depending on their interests and if they’re inclined to watch videos (they have the time to). Whatever is likely to affect adults will have the same effect on children, perhaps more so.
Some of what we found include:
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that children ages two to four spend no more than an hour a day in front of a screen. While you probably aren’t going to give a smartphone to a child that young, it provides some context for the issue.
Here are a few other tips and recommendations related to when and where a smartphone should be used or offered:
However, not everything is bad when it comes to children and smartphone use. Consider the following:
Social media has been around for less than two decades, but it has more power over our lives than most of us realize. And you might realize that there are. You might find that there are more social media networks than you can keep track of, and you don’t know which ones are safe and which ones are not. And ultimately, social media is other people, with most of the unpredictability that provides. While there are some controls and content restrictions, that require moderation that isn’t always perfect.
And you have to ask yourself: at what time should you be exposing your children to that? While there are practically no social networks that allow users under the age of 13, there are a lot of options that also allow you to have more privacy on the account. In the best cases, no one even knows of an account unless the owner of the account reaches out first. And there are usually options for each most and relationship as well. Your child should probably have a way to contact their friends and peers. Random other people aren’t so important.
And at any age, social media can expose us to a distorted reality. People will usually only show their best selves online, and only talk about the exciting bits. Someone (especially someone young without much life experience) might get the idea that life on social media is an accurate reflection. This can lead them to have unhealthy beauty standards, feelings of inadequacy, and similar related problems. This in turn can lead to social and mental health problems if not addressed.
Ultimately, with social media, you have to use your best judgment and monitor it judiciously. Your child will need to stay in contact with their peers, especially as they enter middle and high school. Even coaches and school personnel might start to assume that your child has a phone at some point. There is a lot to be afraid of, but privacy settings make it a lot easier. And while a smartphone might be harder to monitor than a computer, it is possible to keep track of things.
One of the biggest problems with too much screen time is that there is no time for anything else. This leads to children leading a sedentary life that they weren’t meant to have. If a child or teen is spending eight hours a day at or around school and another four hours on their phone, what does that leave time for? And perhaps most people or children don’t sit on the couch for four hours straight on their phone (that’s what video games are for, after all), constantly checking a phone is distracting and hardly conducive to being in the headspace for movement or exercise, or simple play.
The negative health effects of such a lifestyle are well-documented, and starting your child off on such a bad habit will not serve them well into their adult life. If you notice a trend towards your child or teen not wanting to do anything physical, see what you can do about it, and consider how a smartphone might impact that, whether they have one yet or not.
Some would say that there is an epidemic of distracting smartphone usage in the classroom. News reports go wild with the story that students are constantly on their phones instead of listening to teachers or doing anything else. And given that you probably don’t have direct supervision on what does on in school, you can’t be certain either.
Teachers have often complained about smartphones in the classroom. It’s an ongoing debate on whether they have any use at all. While some teachers might ban or otherwise restrict their usage, they aren’t omniscient, and enforcement of those rules can be difficult. If your child has an issue with their smartphone in the classroom, you should support your child’s teacher if they are the least bit reasonable and convey to your child that you are supportive of their teacher and that their smartphone isn’t permanent.
Something to think about now is how do you think your child might use a smartphone in the classroom, or how they are using it now if they have one. You might be inclined to check whether there is a need for one to be able to communicate with you (so you can pick them up after practice or let you know if something has changed) or for another legitimate reason. You can also check to see if they’re using it during school hours
You might think you have to choose between not giving your child a potentially necessary device and letting them have free reign over a potentially dangerous device, but this is a false choice. You can let your children have smartphones while still limiting what they can do on them. Over the years apps, smartphone manufacturers, and mobile OS developers alike have all been looking to give parents more options and access to restrict certain apps or usage time or give parents increased oversight over what their children are doing.
So where to begin? First, start with the options on the smartphone itself or the ones you might have with your provider. You can look at call logs through your service provider (usually through an online account), and do the same thing with texts with most service providers. For how to do so specifically, search for your particular provider. Following internet traffic through the same might be a little more difficult through your ISP, and there might be too much to sift through regularly unless you want to put an extreme effort in. You may want to use an app for that.
Speaking of, there are parental control apps that are available. With most you will be able to tell time spent on the smartphone, messages sent, and which apps are used. You can get all the important info given to you via a notice or dashboard as well. This should be more than enough for you to tell what is going on and whether there is a problem. You will also likely have more direct control as to what you can shut down or keep your kids out of. The apps will vary, and you should note that most of them have a subscription fee as well.
And with these apps, it usually isn’t an all or nothing deal. With most of them, you will be able to select which features you want to use to give your child more or less privacy as would be appropriate. You can know what they’re up to online, and that’s it. You can also limit yourself, knowing that you should trust your child as time goes on.
Be sure to use one that is reputable, safe to use (you don’t want to be trying to keep your kid safe but leak their data in the process), and isn’t so hard to use that you miss an important feature. Ultimately you will only get out of it what you put into it, which means that if you find it too hard to use even after study, your child will not get the oversight they deserve.
While you hopefully know your kids better than anyone, the urge to rebel against restrictions is often natural. If you restrict phone usage on an older teenager too much and especially without reason, they may resent you for it and they might rebel either immediately or down the line.
Remember that once they turn 18 you won’t have as much power over them. When they become independent and move out of the house, you won’t have any power at all over them. And when they go to university, no one likes the parent who hovers over their child too much, especially when it comes to something like how they use their smartphone. Even if you’re the one paying for the smartphone, you can only do so much and oversight will be seen as an invasion of privacy. There is a balance to be had, and you need to find the right level of oversight for your child for their age.
However much we might think we know about smartphones and their effect on everyone around us (especially our children), the truth is that smartphones have only been out for a decade and a half to the public at large. That is not enough time to understand the full long-term effects of anything, much less one of the most complex and multi-faceted technological developments in history.
That is to say that you should take most information on the subject with a grain of salt, even if it says things are safe. You should not shelter your children entirely from technology, given its necessity in modern life, but you should be careful, especially of new things. Don’t believe every headline you read with further thought and don’t necessarily believe other parents either. Your child is not the same as their children.
Furthermore, you should do more research when you are able and stay on the lookout for additional studies and information. Do your due diligence when reading them and only use trusted sources, but you will also want to take heed when necessary. Since smartphones, apps, and the internet are changing, it makes sense that their effect on children (and adults) can change as well.
You might be reading this still wondering when exactly to get a smartphone for your child. And the truth is there is no clear answer, though most children should have some sort of device by the time they reach middle or high school, depending on their temperament or need. You can monitor or control the use as you feel comfortable, and then take off the training wheels over time, so to speak. A child should certainly not have a smartphone before the age of ten, though, at least not all of the time. If you are worried about their safety or want to give them a way to reach out to you, you can give them a cheap prepaid phone that can still call and text people.
In short, listen to your child as well as the information that’s out there, and try to find a balance of everything out there.
Eventually, practically everyone needs a cell phone or smartphone in today’s world. And yet there are dangers to them that you as a parent might be concerned about. And you should be. But we hope that with the above information you can come to find a good balance for your household and a strategy moving forward. Come back to this article as you feel the need, and we hope that you can get a better handle on when and with what controls you should get your child a smartphone.