Ttoday’s parents face a new challenge that previous generations didn’t have to deal with: when to give their kids a smartphone and how to manage their use.
According to the non-profit organization Common Sense Media, 43% of children already own a smartphone by the age of 12.
These questions are especially pressing as Apple prepares to launch the new products on September 7, and the answers depend on your own child’s unique abilities and personality.
“It’s a big decision,” says Erin Wilkie Oh, director of content for Common Sense Media. “There are a lot of factors to consider.”
Still, there is a potential road map. If you’re thinking about getting your child a phone, kids and technology experts say there are a few things to consider: a child’s comfort with big responsibilities, how to keep them safe online, and how the phone will fit into their lives overall .
TIME asked experts about the top questions parents face when choosing a phone for a child (or deciding to hold off).
When should you get your child a phone?
There’s probably no reason a child should need a phone before middle school, says Betsy Brown Brown, a child development specialist and author of You’re not my boss. She says it also depends on the child’s individual comfort with responsibility: only pick up a phone when the child has proven they can take care of their own things and seems ready for a big new challenge.
“The kid who still loses his jacket every week is not ready for a phone,” she says.
“Wait as long as possible,” says Julia Storm, a digital media educator and founder of Connect again. Once you give your child a smartphone, you’re entrusting them with an expensive and potentially addictive device. It can change their relationship with the world around them (including you) forever, says Storm.
“From a purely developmental perspective, young children are not particularly well equipped to regulate their smartphone use,” says Storm.
A 2019 survey by researchers at King’s College London concluded that 23% of children have “problematic smartphone use” which leads to negative mental health effects – including depression, anxiety, stress and sleep problems.
What is the safest phone for a child?
Simpler phones are safer. If a younger child absolutely needs a phone—for example, to keep in touch with family—look for a flip phone and preload it with a few key phone numbers. An iPad with FaceTime can also work, says Sigi Cohen, a child and family therapist in Los Angeles. She says, “Especially after the pandemic, there’s a much greater need to feel connected, and FaceTime allows you to do that without access to everything.”
Storm says that for younger kids, there are plenty of good kid-friendly smartphones on the market these days. She points to spinning wheel and Gabsimplistic phones designed for kids that both limit apps and give parents control.
Storm also recommends smartwatches for kids that can act as a “bridge between no phone and a full smartphone.” A smartwatch would give kids the ability to communicate via text, but limited access to the internet, games or social media.
Should I set up parental controls on my child’s phone?
Kids with smartphones have easy access to social media sites—and may be on them, even if they’re younger than the platforms allow. Twenty percent of fourth-graders with phones use social media like Facebook and Snapchat, even though their rules require users to be at least 13 years old, according to report by the digital literacy nonprofit MediaSmarts. This makes parental controls especially important for younger children because bullying and unsafe behavior can start on these sites.
The device’s content settings, found in the Screen Time menu, can help keep any movies or TV shows watched on the phone PG-rated and can also allow kids to view only certain types of websites.
In general, when thinking about restrictions and limits, parents should think about getting a first phone like learning to drive, Storm says. “You can’t just hand over the keys and say ‘good luck!’ Children need some guidance, some limits and boundaries as they learn how to navigate this very complex and fascinating landscape.”
Storm also says it’s important to start slow. Until children are comfortable using a smartphone, parents should limit social media apps, set time limits for use, avoid news apps (because kids can become overwhelmed and scared trying to process news on their own), and not play games games on the phone.
Phones can also distract children from sleep, she says, so set clear rules about when the device is turned off and put away (out of the bedroom) at night.
How can I take care of the problems?
If children get into potentially dangerous situations online with bullies or strangers, there are services like Cora which scan the phone for potential red flags and alert parents. Bark scans texts, emails and social media platforms for signs of cyberbullying, adult content, threats of violence and other dangers.
Wilkey Oh, of Common Sense Media, says parents should teach children what to do if something makes them feel uncomfortable, whether they witness something like bullying or hate speech. She calls it “a red flag feeling: the feeling in your stomach when you feel anxious or worried.” In these cases, children need to learn to stop, says Wilkie Oh, and think about what’s going on and what’s making them feel that way. They should then talk to a trusted adult and know how to block or report someone who misbehaves.
However, the parent’s tone matters. Talk about potentially harmful scenarios like violent content or harassment in a way that’s not condescending, says Cohen. “We can’t prevent what’s out there, but we can actually talk about things that are inappropriate for them at their age,” she says, noting that regular discussions can remind a child that your job as parent is to keep him safe.
What kind of discussions should I have with my child about phone use?
Brown, author of you are not my boss recommends drawing up a simple phone contract that outlines the rights and responsibilities of owning a phone. Brown also advises children to contribute to the monthly cost of the device — including repairs and purchasing apps.
“Whether it’s $15 or $5 a month, a child needs a sense of ownership,” she says. “And paying for something makes you more willing to have it.”
She says every contract should be written collaboratively, and there is no universal template for what should be in the document.
Parents can also model good phone behavior, showing kids that phones aren’t just mindless screens for endless scrolling. Wilkie O says that when she holds her phone up to her kids, she dictates what she’s doing – so they know she’s using it for a reason.
“There are skills kids can learn before they start using these technologies,” says Wilkie O. “It’s better to have those conversations than just assume they’re going to get it.”
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