We can’t tell you how much debate we’ve seen over the simple question, “when is my kid ready for a smartphone?” It brings out nearly as much stress, passion and well, sanctimony, as questions about breastfeeding or sleep training.
Well, after spending so many years writing about tech and listening to parents, two things are abundantly clear: 1) We all want to do the best for our kids. 2) All of our kids are different.
That’s why there’s no simple answer. And frankly, anyone who tries to give you one is selling a book. (Ha. But..they probably are.)
The real answer about whether your child is ready for a smartphone — or something a bit less connected — one you have to come to yourself, and we just want to give you the questions to ask to help you find the right answer that’s best for your own family. And really, isn’t that what all of parenting is about?
Questions to ask yourself…
1. Why does my child need a smartphone?
This seems like a pretty obvious question to ask yourself, and in fact we bet your child will come up with a bunch of reasons that you never even considered. Some of which may make you roll your eyes (“everyone has one!”) and some of which may actually be fair (“I’d really like to have a maps app to help me get around the neighborhood by myself.”)
However, it’s our job as parents to decide not just what will make our kids happy, but to differentiate their needs from wants, and way benefits versus the downsides to any given choice. Which is why you’re here in the first place, right?
2. Does my child really need a smartphone…or will another device do the job?
Photo: Webster2703 on Pixabay
Now for those of you who believe that kids shouldn’t have their own phones at all until they’re 18 (and we know you’re out there!) we can actually think of a bunch of very reasonable situations in which kids should have a phone, or communication device of some sort. For example:
* Staying in touch with the other parent, school friends, or siblings in a divorced household
* Keeping safe walking home alone from school or other activities, considering the lack of public phones these days.
* Staying home alone, especially if you’re one of the 50% of US homes without a landline.
* Connecting with faraway friends and family, or deployed parents if you’re a military family.
* Communicating with classmates and teachers for homework and other assignments
* Coordinating with peers in a team, club, or extracurricular activity through group texting or a group communication app.
* Earning gradual trust and responsibility to grow and become more independent
If any of those situations have you nodding your head, then you may already have a good reason or two to start browsing cell phone options for kids. Or, as an alternative, maybe you want to get your child a cell phone but hang onto it yourself most days. Then you can offer it up just for those occasions that it feels necessary.
3. Is my child responsible enough to care for a smartphone?
A screen protector can only do so much. So ask yourself honestly whether your child can properly care for an expensive piece of technology.
Even adults have been known to drop theirs in a toilet (ahem) or leave them in a taxi (sob).
Since you know your child best, so take a moment to decide whether you think they will be capable of managing all the responsibilities that come with using a cell phone. Like keeping it dry, keeping it off the floor, keeping a protective case on it at all times, and never ever leaving it behind.
4. Will smartphone functionality truly help my child in their daily lives?
Now you need to figure out whether your child really does need all the things a smartphone can do, that another kind of phone don’t.
Because first of all, smartphones are spendy! No surprise there. Even a hand-me-down needs a service contract, a case, a warranty (definitely get a warranty!) , let alone paid services, apps, and other accessories. So be certain there’s a true need for everyday use of smartphone functionality — from apps to a music library to camera function — that can’t be fulfilled by a smartphone alternative, or by borrowing your own phone or tablet from time to time.
Let’s put it this way: If you get the sense that your kid is asking for a smartphone mostly to play Minecraft on the school bus home, it’s probably not an essential.
Citymapper: One of the most helpful apps for independent kids
On the other hand, there are some smartphone apps that we’ve found to be surprisingly helpful for our older kids. Like maps apps for getting around or navigating public transportation by themselves. Or apps communication with their peers in clubs, classes, and other after-school activities.
And sometimes there are surprisingly positive aspects of connecting with our kids via smartphones, like the ability to text a photo and ask, “are these the jeans you’ve been looking for?” before you buy them. Shooting over a QR code of their mobile movie ticket, so they can hit the theater by themselves with friends. Or forwarding a link to an article we want them to read right away.
If this is all sounding far far away from your own kid’s daily life, then you’re probably not in smartphone territory yet. But if you’re nodding along, keep reading.
Got more digital parenting questions? We’ve got answers! Be sure to check out our entire Ultimate Guide to Digital Parenting.
5. Is my child mature enough to handle digital communication?
The written word is tough for us at any age — think of how many texts or tweets or emails of yours have been misinterpreted over the years because “tone” was missing. Yes, a winky emoji can go a long way, but if kids are going to have smartphones, they have to have the maturity to be able to communicate well in writing.
They won’t just be texting friends, but they’ll be using email, potentially using apps or gaming servers with the ability to leave comments, or seeing comments from others on sites like YouTube.
Ask yourself, how will my kid handle themselves? What will they do if they see bullying? What will they do if they see other harmful or dangerous behavior? Are they mature enough to identify it and tell a parent or teacher?
Kids use email and texting in the most surprising ways, and you want to know that they have the maturity to navigate the fast-evolving digital communication landscape.
6. Is my child a rule-follower?
Oof, this is a hard question for any parent to be able to answer honestly, but there are going to be a million rules for your child to follow when it comes to using a smartphone, particularly when you’re not around.
Their own values will be put to the test a million times, with all the situations you hadn’t anticipated when you let them start texting — let alone when sign them up for their first Instagram account.
We are not alarmist in general, but we do know that kids + camera + social media + untethered access to the internet can equal scary stuff. So you really need to be honest with yourself before you hand them the a pocket-sized Internet access machine.
That’s why you should put together a smartphone contract, as we recommend, but be sure ask yourself, “will my chid follow it?” If you look deep into your heart and believe the answer is no right now, best to wait a bit longer.
7. Am I willing and able to be involved with my child’s digital life every day?
Believe it or not, the number one question about whether your child is ready for a smartphone is more about you than your child.
You didn’t take off your toddler’s diaper then send them off to figure out potty training on their own You wouldn’t hand your non-driver the keys to the car and say, “have a great day!” Similarly, you can’t just give your child a smartphone without engaging with it literally every day.
Or at least, most days. No exaggeration.
Smartphones are a lot of responsibility….for you
As a parent, you’re going to need to set up the phone properly in the first place (these 9 tips help). Lock down privacy settings. Evaluate all the apps they ask for. Think about screen time limits. and monitoring devices. Have a serious tech talk, including the meaning of a digital footprint. Learn texting acronyms (though they change month to month it seems). Talk about phishing schemes. Teach them how to set strong passwords. Keep an eye out for screen addiction issues. Follow them on their social media accounts and check in frequently.
And it doesn’t end there, because you’ll have a big new hobby too: keeping up with the latest tech news that’s impacting family and kids. (Hey, Cool Mom Tech is a good place for that!)
You need to know more about tech than you ever thought you’d have to know, because you can’t be a great digital parent without that knowledge.
Keep talking! (In person works great.)
Above all, you need to be prepared to keep all lines of communication open so you can know what’s going on in your child’s digital life day to day. Trust us, you have way more to talk about besides “don’t share naked pictures of yourself” if you want to keep your kids healthy and safe online. And your guidance in helping your child establish strong boundaries and make smart, safe digital choices can impact them in positive ways that can last a lifetime.
Let us assure you: when you do have a child who’s finally mature, responsible, independent, and smartphone ready, and you see them making good choices even without your input, it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.
Sometimes, we just need to watch them fly.
Be sure to check out our entire Ultimate Guide to Digital Parenting for more answers to your burning questions.