How To Tell If Your Kid Is Ready For Their First Cell Phone (And What To Do If They Are)

Don't buy that selfie-stick just yet.

by Alison Zeidman
kids playing with phone

Your kid was born in the 21st century, so you have all kinds of 21st century problems parents of previous generations don’t. Topping the list – right behind their crippling Arduino anxiety and STEM FOMO — is “can I get my own cell phone?” Of course, that will likely be a text sent from their friend’s new iPhone 7.

You’ve thought about getting your kids a phone “for emergencies only.” But for kids, “emergency” can quickly devolve into “Googling memes” or “4-hour chats with friends that take place entirely with weird emojis.” So what’s your move? According to Sierra Filucci, Executive Editor Of Parenting Content at Common Sense Media, the first step is to consider your kid’s maturity. Second thing: What’s the intent. And that leads to the third thing: This pocket computer has access to tons of things they’re not ready for.

Gauge Your Kid’s Maturity Level

So, there’s no right age to give a kid a phone, because all kids develop differently. “The most important question parents need to ask themselves is why do you want to get your kid a phone?” says Filucci. Establish whether they’re asking about one because they need it for a school project, or because they need it for socializing. And yes, it is also a direct line to you during emergencies. All these reasons are better than “they bugging me 20 times a day about it.”

Is It For School, Socializing, Or Sexy Selfie-ing?

Your kid needs to be honest about their eagerness. Do they want it to watch Gilmore Girls clips? Snapchat with friends? Follow butt models on Instagram? “My daughter’s 12 and she’s begging me for a phone, and what she wants to use it for is socializing. That’s something that I totally support and I’m fine with,” says Filucci.

Note most anything tweens can do on a phone, they can just as easily do from your computer, so sometimes there are deeper reasons. Filucci found out that her daughter actually wanted a phone because it was status symbol for her. “That’s something, as parents, we need to recognize and talk through,” she says. “Do we always do the things that our friends do just to look cool? Or do we make different decisions for different reasons? It’s a nuanced conversation.”

Are They Ready For The Responsibility?

That’s the key question. To quote Joe Biden, is a big f—ing deal, and you and they need to be sure it will be treated as such. “Think through how they already treat valuable or important objects,” says Filucci. “Do they lose their backpack? Their sunglasses? Do they get mad and throw their Kindle?” If the answer is “yes” to any or all of the above, your kid might not be ready for a smartphone. In that case, you might want to start them out with a calls-only “dumb phone.” Or give them one of your old ones. Because you need an upgrade.

Preach Upstanding Snapchat Behavior

“Before you hand over a powerful tool like a phone, you want to have a conversation with your kid about all of the responsibilities that go along with the phone — from physically taking care of it, to the appropriate use of the device,” says Filucci. Talk about proper text and social media etiquette, and what’s appropriate to post and share online. Make sure you both know their school’s rules around cell phone use. And lay out house rules for when they can use their phone. (Under their covers late at night doesn’t make that list.)

Become The All-Knowing, All-Seeing Data Monitor

Don’t let your kid incur data charges that look like they’ve been running their own private server farm. Here are a few tips to keep that bill down:

  • Have them keep their phone on Wi-Fi-only mode.
  • Sign up for parental services with your provider and set data limits on family plan phones
  • Set up “Ask To Buy” alerts so that you’re informed when anyone in the family wants to purchase more Candy Crush crap.
  • Install parental control apps like Kid’s Place or Safe Lagoon, both of which which block unapproved apps, restrict certain incoming calls, and even allow full-on cyberspying. Just like the NSA!

You should also make sure that your kid knows the consequences of going over the plan, and that you’re prepared to enforce them. Like, no college.

Enforce Screen-Time Limits On Your Kids (And Yourself)

When kids have a cell phone, it also means way more time in front of a screen. Unless you want them to be pale, squinty creatures with the posture of Industrial Revolution factory workers (and none of the work ethic), you must set boundaries.

“If you start seeing them only interacting with their phone, not taking care of their responsibilities around the house, not getting their homework done, and never looking up, that’s not balance,” says Filucci. And, if you expect them be a responsible phone user … you first. Model that behavior you want to see from them. That means the end of answering work emails from the dinner table. Or, as your family calls it, “your fantasy football lineup.”