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The 9 Things I Considered Before Giving My Kids Their First Phones

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As a Silicon Valley nerd, I admit I was clueless about how to raise awesome kids in the digital age, but now, with a 20-year-old son in college, and a 17-year-old daughter in her senior year of high school, my influence in how my kids use their phones is almost done. I think we handled it fairly well along the way!

Some dear friends with younger children recently asked if I had any advice before giving their daughter a cell phone. I threw together my best advice, and when I was done, I realized there were some gems in what I’d learned. I decided to share it with everyone. So without claiming to be any kind of expert, here are some of the things we learned along the way, in hopes I might save you some of the trouble we found.

You have to decide when it’s the right time to give your child a phone. We gave our son a flip phone when he was 11 (there were no smartphones then), but gave our daughter a smartphone 3 years later, when she, too, was ready for a phone. Your family will decide the timing for your children, but here are 3 reasons why you want to give your kid a phone:

Safety
This is probably the main reason you’re thinking of giving your kid a phone. Maybe you’re worried she’ll need a ride from a rained-out soccer practice, or they take public transportation to school, and their train has already been late one time. These are perfectly legitimate reasons for a first phone. We found comfort in knowing that if they really needed to reach us, or us them, our kids were just a call or text away.

Knowledge
When I was a teenager, I did school reports after reading encyclopedias that were already decades old. Obviously those times are gone, but imagine the world ahead of your kids. Every scrap of human knowledge will be on the web and searchable. Right now your child can use that knowledge to complete his schoolwork, but I believe the kids who learn to use, process and filter that information will be the most successful adults of the future. If all information is available to everyone, the people who are best at working with that information will thrive. Giving your kid a cellphone actually makes answering their questions with “look it up” a lot more satisfying.

Entertainment
Don’t knock it! Cell phones are marvelously entertaining, and just like you once killed Saturday mornings watching cartoons while your parents slept, or listened to your Walkman in the back seat on long road-trips, your child’s cell phone will keep them entertained when you may not have the energy.

Put In Heavy Restrictions Early, Loosen Them With Time And Earned Trust
Once you’ve decided to give your kid a phone, the next step is to help them learn to use it in a safe and responsible way. A cell phone lies somewhere between the responsibility of a car and the privacy of a diary. Your child will have intimate secrets on her phone, and you should respect that. But in the same way a car can permanently harm a child’s life, inappropriate messages or pictures on a phone can really damage a child’s future. You should set up rules and expectations early so your child’s phone is as safe as possible, and the child should know that you might need to look at what’s going on in the conversations on the phone at some point.

Not to mention, it’s much easier to put in restrictions when the kid is younger and so excited to get a phone. Adding restrictions for a teenager, especially in the middle of an argument, can be extremely stressful. So, just like with a first car, you should keep a close eye as your child starts using a phone, and give your child more freedom once you are confident they have the character and tools to use it responsibly.

Here are some specific apps to allow on a child’s first phone:

  • Texting or Messaging: Most plans offer unlimited texting. If the family already uses an ecosystem of messages (WhatsApp, iMessage, etc.), set them up with that.
  • Music: Load local music in the beginning, and let them get a streaming music plan when they can afford it with their earned money.
  • Google Search: You can set restrictions for “Safe Search”, but the Google app is how they’ll find all that wonderful information out there.
  • Browser: The system’s native browser is fine. No need to set restrictions, but maybe occasionally look at the browser history and have appropriate conversations if you see things that concern you.
  • Email: Get your child a great email address and it may last them for a lifetime. Also teach them (over time) to collect all their contacts and even use a calendar. I personally recommend Gmail, because you can put the Email, Contacts and Calendar on any device, regardless of device brand. Apple’s iCloud, for example, doesn’t let you access your contacts on Android devices.
  • Maps: Teach your kids to use maps to learn how to get places, where they are in relation to things, and how to use public transit.
  • Photos And Video: Your child will document their life in ways you didn’t. That doesn’t make them bad, just modern. Encourage them to share the photos with you, and discuss pictures that concern you.
  • Games: Give your child a few great games. The games will make long car rides and waiting for you to pick them up more pleasant for both of you.

Apps To Avoid
SnapChat, Facebook, Instagram: They’re all great services, but you can give access to them as rewards for achievements and earned trust. Most parents use them as punishments, taking them away for bad behavior, but they can just as easily be rewards as your kid gains responsibility and maturity.

Turn On Tracking
Your child will leave the phone somewhere, and you’ll need to help them find it. For us, it was searching a soccer field in the middle of the night after realizing the phone fell out of a backpack. But with the tracking we were able to know it was at the soccer field, and the software made the phone beep once we knew we were close. And at some point your child won’t respond to your calls or texts, they’ll be late, and you’ll use the tracking to see that they’re at a friend’s house, or somewhere safe — instant peace of mind. I don’t actively track my children every day, but I sure do when I’m worried.

Pro Tip: I turned on tracking on my phone so my kids could see where I was, too. It helps them know which parent is closer, plus …fair is fair. My kids have never actively asked that we turn off the tracking as they got older, but I figure if it ever becomes a real concern, it’s probably time for them to pay their own cell bill.

Data Use
I really hated arguing with my kids over data. I have finally found a plan where we don’t argue. They get a specific amount of data, and when it’s up, their phone doesn’t stop working, it just slows down, and I don’t get an extra charge when they go over. What that means is their phone still works when they go over. Texting, maps, and tracking all still work. The phone continues to work for its primary function — safety. For me, the only carrier who offered that was T-Mobile, but it’s such an important feature that I suspect other carriers will adopt it.

Some Hard And Fast Safety Rules For A Kid’s Phone

  • Always respond to Mom and Dad’s calls and texts immediately (don’t call or text them during school hours).
  • Never bike with your headphones in your ears.
  • Put your phone in the glove box while driving.
  • Never walk at night or in a crowded street with your phone out.
  • Never “friend” or correspond with someone you haven’t met in person.
  • Leave the phone outside the bedroom at night to charge, to make sure it isn’t a sleep distraction.

Insist On Good Manners From The Beginning
One simple fact of parenting is that your children grow up and become the people they want to be. You hope to teach them enough when they’re young to help them make great choices later. You know this. Teaching them to use a phone can feel like firm rules early, but you’re helping them make good choices later. The fact is, you won’t have much control over how your son or daughter uses their phone very soon, so set some good boundaries day one.

Here’s a set of manners to consider implementing when you first give your child a phone. Discuss them with your child over time, and modify them to fit your family’s priorities:

  • Never use the phone when in a classroom.
  • Never use the phone when in a room with an adult.
  • Never look at the phone when someone is speaking to you.
  • Never have the phone visible or even buzz at the dinner table (in our house, a buzzing phone means you do the dishes).
  • Never use the flash in a place where it will make other people turn their heads.
  • Never take a picture you wouldn’t show Mom or Dad.
  • Never post anything on a social network you wouldn’t want grandma or your principal to see.

Richard Bullwinkle is a Product and Marketing Executive with strong experience in Media and Entertainment and Consumer Electronics. You can find more Medium posts here:

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