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When and How to Introduce Your Child’s First Smartphone

Is Your Child Ready For Their First Smartphone?

If you’ve got a 10 or 11-year-old, then chances are you’re wondering when to introduce the first smartphone? And, also, what rules to establish when you hand the device over? We asked clinical psychologist, Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, for help.

What’s the average age kids get cell phones?

I find that most parents wait until sometime in middle school. Remember, a smartphone gives your child access to the entire Internet. You need to be clear about why would you do this and you need to understand that your child will have access to adult content that you may not want them to see. For example, many adolescents are getting a sex education on porn sites. And you need to be comfortable talking about this with your kids, without scaring or shaming them.

What’s the conversation when we hand it over?

When you introduce that first smartphone to your child, discuss what the phone is and is not for. You need to immediately set cell phone rules for kids. You have to assume that kids will make mistakes online because it happens all the time. Then your challenge becomes: What do you do about those mistakes, including bad behavior? You should have a “Responsible Use” contract with your kids, which you revisit all the way through middle school.

Basically, this is an agreement that says: “Here is a phone. It’s our phone, not yours. Here’s what it’s for: it’s for keeping charged and always responding when you get a message from us. It’s not for sending embarrassing photos or spreading rumors or being mean. Let’s talk about what the consequence will be if you do that.” [Here’s an example of a contract.]

We have to talk about all kinds of possible scenarios, with each new app, each new degree of freedom. The vast majority of kids can’t self-regulate. Parents need to be calm, approachable, and informed, and teach their children digital manners, digital citizenship, and healthy practices, such as not sleeping with their devices in their bedrooms.

Throughout middle school, I also recommend you have a lot of filters at home to block pornography and other adult content. But recognize that by the end of eighth grade, kids are often using their smartphones for academic purposes — and by that point, your child can outsmart you anyway unless you are really tech savvy.

What rules do you recommend for bedtime?

Make your kids hand over all their devices before they go to bed. So much happens after bedtime. Sleep is compromised, FOMO (fear of missing out) is a huge factor. Text conversations at three in the morning. Twelve-year-old boys setting their alarms for one o’clock to meet up with their posse to play Minecraft.

Most importantly, your kids need to learn that they do not sleep with their smartphone next to them on their pillow. Otherwise, they become so psychologically dependent on them. We are now seeing kids unable to separate from them; and they have all sorts of anxieties when they are without their phone.

Catherine Steiner-Adair

Learn more about Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair and The Big Disconnect at her website.