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Dialed In: When should your child get a phone?

Dialed In

Last year, my son’s fourth-grade class went to Annapolis in late May as a part of a school field trip. On the permission form, the teachers said the students would be allowed to bring phones if they wanted to take photos of the sites.

As a chaperone, I really didn’t think much of it. I figured there would be a few kids with phones. No big deal. As it turned out, more than half the class brought a phone. So as we were taking a tour of the Naval Academy and the Maryland State House, many of the students were taking pictures.

My son was not because he did not have a phone. And that is when the pressure to get a phone started. Now that he will be entering middle school later this year, my husband and I have started to discuss getting him and his sister a basic cellphone.

In talking with parents with kids in the late elementary to early middle school range, many have voiced the same fears and questions that we have about phones. How do we monitor them? When is the right age for a kid to have one?

I reached out to Diane Graves, a child clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology and counseling at Hood College, to discuss what parents need to know when considering a phone for their child.

Graves notes that parents need to look at both the child’s age and maturity to guide them in their decision. When her own daughter asked for a phone, Graves found five helpful questions on Common Sense Media’s website to assess if she was ready for the responsibility.

Why do you want a phone?

“I think that is a good question to ask children because some parents may assume their children want phones for a particular reason, but when they actually talk with them they might find out, surprisingly, that their child wants it for other reasons,” Graves says.

Do you understand the rules that our family and school have for using your phone?
“We had to talk about what our family rules would be, and she also had to share with me what the school rules were around phone use,” Graves says. “They think they know the answer, but it is a good conversation about expectations about how the phone is used. We were also able to discuss what happens when rules get broken, and I think that was an important maturity question.”

Why do you think parents and teachers have some concerns about phones?
This question is a good one, too, because it makes the child articulate the tensions and concerns around getting a phone, so he or she understands better without a parent lecturing him or her.

What are several places where it is not OK to use your phone?
Children should understand their phone is a beneficial tool for them to use for certain things, such as talking with close friends and communicating changes to family members, Graves says. But there are times when they should not use their phone because it is actually problematic, including during class time.

Do you understand the basic upkeep of a cellphone?
Parents need to have a plan in place on how a child will maintain a phone as well as what would happen if it is stolen, lost or broken. Then, if one of those situations ever arises, everyone knows the next step.

These questions helped Graves decide when her daughter was ready for the responsibility. “I needed to be comfortable before I was ready to give her a phone even if she was ready,” she says. “The key thing was we had conversations about it.

She understood why instead of me saying, ‘No. No. No. No.’ I think it was an important part of our relationship for me to start explaining why I was saying no and to give her the opportunity to share with me what her thinking was about cellphones.

Then I could gauge when she was mature enough to be ready and I was ready to tackle this whole new area of parenting—how do we manage a phone in our home and you being available?”

The positives of a child having a phone include the ability to quickly connect with them outside of the home.

If a sports practice ends early or carpool time changes, parents have a direct connection to their child. Parents may also be able to keep an eye on their child to know who is coming and going in his or her social life.

If a child gets a phone in the late elementary/early middle school range, Graves says they are learning to grow with phone etiquette. Parents may have a little more control over how they interact with the device instead of just handing them a phone at age 15 and having less say in content.

“At some level, we are quick to want to vilify phones, and I think they should be engaged with caution. But there also has been a lot of hype and fear around phones that is not necessarily warranted by the research literature,” Graves says. “Caution? Yes. Fear? No.”

Some of the negative effects of a child having a phone include potentially developing some entitlement issues before they understand the value of money. “It is one thing to be giving your fifth- or sixth-grader a phone,” Graves said. “It is another thing to get them the latest iPhone.” She suggests giving them a used phone or having them work or contribute toward the purchase of a higher-tech phone.

Potential bullying is usually one of the parents’ largest concerns, and owning a phone can make a child more susceptible. When most parents grew up, a bully was only at school and a child could find a safe harbor in their home and neighborhood.

“But when your child has a phone, the bully follows your child into your home, into their bedroom, into their private spaces,” Graves says. “They are never really able to escape the torment, and that can be very devastating for children.”

If a child has social media on their phone, parents need to monitor it. “I think the issue of bullying is very real, and some kids may not understand how it feels to have this person come into their room that they can’t keep out,” she says.

Kids need to know that they should communicate with an adult if they are getting bullied online. They also need to know how to block someone who is bullying. And these are conversations that parents should have with their children before they purchase a phone, Graves says.

All of these questions and discussion points have given my husband and me many things to consider as we decide whether or not to get our son a phone.

Hopefully, they help you as well.