What’s the right age to give my child a phone? The complete checklist

Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Child psychologist

Tips to help your child stay safe during the back to school period

Have you been considering a smartphone as a potential Christmas or birthday gift for your child this year? If so, you’re wise to consider the decision carefully. While your child will probably think it’s the best gift ever, it’s important to understand the potential benefits and risks before you wrap up their very own cell phone. This article provides crucial things to consider, tips to help you identify whether your child is ready for their own cell phone, and how to set reasonable expectations for you and your child once they have one.

Should your child have a smartphone?

There are many potential benefits and risks associated with children’s use of smartphones. Here are several of the important pros and cons to consider in relation to your specific child and situation:

Pros of your child having their own phone:

1. Phones are convenient.

There’s no doubt about it, smartphones make our lives considerably easier. This is especially the case if we have busy schedules or often have to be flexible with school transportation or other activities. If your child has their own phone, it’s easier to effectively communicate and plan

2. Phones provide social opportunities.

Whether we like it or not, the internet has become a primary space for social interaction among all age groups. Whether it’s social media, games, or texting, we rely significantly on our phones to forge and maintain social connections and keep up with the people we care about. In and out of school, kids often use their phones for all of these reasons and more. 

3. Technology is more important than ever in school.

Computers and phones have been integrated into almost all aspects of our kids’ education, and there are lots of situations where it can really help your child to have access to their own phone for class activities or other learning endeavors.

4. Smartphones can improve quality of life.

With proper expectations and guidance put in place, smartphones can be a helpful tool for your child to use when they want to relax after a long day or settle in to get work done. My family especially loves listening to music while we do almost anything – even cooking or doing homework. Smartphones also provide access to apps that can support stress reduction, coping skills, and more.

Technology tips to help with the back to school routine

Cons of your child owning a cell phone:

1. Smartphones can be distracting.

Whether it’s at school or at home, having access to a smartphone is highly distracting for most kids. If a child struggles to manage their time and attention without a smartphone, this is likely to get worse when they have access to one. 

2. Phones provide access to inappropriate content.

We don’t want our kids exposed to age-inappropriate content, including pornography, and the internet is unfortunately a common offender here. Giving kids a smartphone has the potential to allow them too much freedom over what they see and do, which can lead to potential trouble and harm. 

3. Increased risk of cyberbullying or other social challenges.

While phones can allow for more social connections, they aren’t all necessarily positive. Your child is at increased risk of witnessing or being the victim of bullying with texting and internet access, and especially if they are using social media apps. There is also the potential for other socially inappropriate behavior, especially for kids who have not yet learned to manage their communication and relationships in more mature ways.

4. Cell phones are a large responsibility.

Phones are expensive, can be easily lost or damaged, and require a high degree of responsibility to care for appropriately. Kids are especially likely to break or lose their phones, which can be an expensive problem to fix.

Of course, there are a number of factors beyond these that can influence your decision. Your child’s age, level of responsibility, maturity, trustworthiness, and more can all help you decide whether they should really have access to a phone yet. The most important thing to remember is that your child is ready for a smartphone when they show you that they are mature and responsible enough to handle the risks and responsibilities that come along with it.

In general, I have found this means most kids under 13 aren’t good candidates for smartphones. However, there are situations where a child over 13 still isn’t ready, or a younger child clearly is. Taking into account your family’s own circumstances goes a long way toward making the best decision for you and your child. 

Is my child really ready for a cell phone?

Here is a simple checklist that you can use to assess readiness for your child to have their own smartphone:

  • Is your child prone to losing things? Do they manage belongings appropriately?
  • Does your child generally follow rules and expectations you set? Are they often disrespectful or non-compliant with rules and expectations?
  • Is your child trustworthy?
  • Does your child manage things like homework, chores, and other tasks/responsibilities appropriately?
  • Has your child exhibited unsafe or inappropriate behavior related to electronics or digital media at home, school, or other people’s homes?
  • Are you willing to set and consistently enforce expectations and consequences for device-related behavior?
  • Is your child willing to sign a contract/agreement detailing expectations for using devices and digital media?
  • Are you willing to utilize parental control features, regularly monitor your child’s use of devices and digital media, and engage your child in conversations about what they are seeing and who they are communicating with?

How to make cell phones a success for your child

If you’ve decided that your child is ready for a phone, that’s great! Now, the challenge is making sure that you work together to avoid the pitfalls that we’ve already identified. Especially for younger kids, it can be incredibly useful to sit down and create a contract or set of rules surrounding their smartphone usage so that they know exactly how they should be using their new piece of technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics has some helpful downloads for creating tech contracts with kids. 

Establishing clear rules about daily time limits, no-phone zones, consequences, and more go a long way toward helping your kid get the best out of their device without creating more problems. Here are a couple of other specific things you might want to plan for once you’ve wrapped up that special gift:

1. Set clear expectations

From the outset, sit down and have a talk about how they will use their new phone. Creating a set of rules for them to follow is the best way to make sure, especially at first, that you have made the right decision in allowing them to have a phone. It also gives your child a chance to prove that they are responsible enough to keep it. Be sure to include everything from when they are allowed to use their phone to where they may use it, and include when and where they should not be using it. 

    2. Have a plan for nighttime

    It’s no secret that screen time has a significant negative impact on sleep. To make sure that your kids get enough sleep at night and can be successful the next day, it’s critical to make a plan for where their devices should be before they go to bed each night. One great idea is to have a central area, such as a desk or counter, where everyone’s phones must be left before bed. Phones don’t belong in kids’ rooms at night.

    3. Monitor their device usage

    One of the simplest and most effective ways to keep your kids from accessing inappropriate content, or using their phones too much during the day, is to set up an app that gives you some control over their device. I recommend Qustodio for this purpose, as it’s the app I’ve used for years with my own family. It’s an easy-to-install app which lets you customize what your kids can access and when, with features that allow you to update restrictions on the fly for plenty of day-to-day flexibility.

    Remember: Only you can determine if and when your child is ready to have their own cell phone. Considering all the factors above, including your own willingness to provide the additional support kids need once they have a phone, will help you make a healthy decision. 

    If your child is ready for a smartphone, you will be able to work with them to develop strategies that help them get the most out of their device without too much trouble. No child is perfect, and it may take time to iron out some of the issues that pop up. In the end, everyone will appreciate the newfound independence and opportunities that come with responsible smartphone use.

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