A Cellphone for My Kid?

by John Hoffman

Is my kid old enough to have her own cell phone? This has become one of the pressing little questions for parents, hasn’t it?

I’m not even going to try to answer that question for you. So many factors are involved – your child’s maturity, money, where you live, how much time she spends away from you etc. But I do have some ideas about how to think it through.

First of all, according to a survey by a group called Media Smarts, about half of Canadian kids have their own cell phone by the time they are in grade 7. One quarter have them in grade 4. The survey, of 5000 Grade 4 – 11 students, was done in 2013, so chances are the numbers are a little higher now. This tells us one important fact. Although lots of 10 and 11 –year-old have their own cellphones, “everybody” does not have one, even if your child tries to tell you otherwise.

Some families may have a compelling reason for a child to have his own phone. Maybe he is out and about on his own a lot, taking public transit to after school activities or arriving home from school to an empty house. Maybe you and your partner (if you have one) are away from home a lot.

But in a lot of cases, it’s just that your child wants her own phone (because, you know, everybody has one). You may have all kinds of concerns, ranging from exposure to radiation (controversial), the expense of replacing lost phones (you can buy insurance) and sexting, porn (get parental controls), text bullying etc.

Browse the internet and you’ll find all sorts of opinions. But I’d suggest trying a good old fashioned parenting strategy: talk to other parents. Talk the issue over with other people you like and respect. Does their kid have his own phone? Why? (or why not?). What cellphone arrangement do they have? What concerns did they have and how did they deal with them? (I assume you will talk to your partner first.)

You don’t have to do what other people do, but it’s very useful to know what’s going on in other families. Talking to other parents also helps you feel a little less alone in your parenting struggles and turmoil, both big and small.

David Berger’s 12-year-old daughter Sadie got her own smartphone at age 12, but with an interesting twist. There’s no SIM card. That means Sadie can text, play games and go online, but she can’t make phone calls. So her cell phone is really a mini tablet. Why? “A tablet is actually what Sadie wanted.” Berger and his wife were thinking about that request. Then Berger got a new smart phone through work. “Giving Sadie my old phone without the SIM card seemed like a low cost way to let her have her tablet,” he says.

Like most parents of young cell phone users Berger has some concerns – access to inappropriate content being one of them. But his biggest concern right now is the time Sadie spends on her phone. “She spends a lot of time on it when we’re in the car,” he says. “But then I think, well what did we do on long car rides. We were just bored. What was so great about that?”

One way to limit phone use a little is to have a no texting at the dinner table rule. (Of course, Dad has to stick to that too). “I’m trying to stay off my phone from 7 pm to 9 pm every night,” says Berger. “And I’m trying to get Sadie to do that too.”

Reducing evening cell phone use is a good idea. For one thing, exposure to electronic screens (including computers and tablets as well) is stimulating for the brain in a way that can interfere with sleep.  And, if you haven’t heard yet, some teenagers get awakened by text pings in the middle of the night. Not necessary and not good. So, storing all cellphones in a kitchen drawer overnight is a good idea too.

Here’s an approach you could try to sort of ease your way into your child having her own phone. Give her the phone but say, “It’s not yours yet. It’s my phone. You can use it and it can become your phone if you show me you can handle the responsibility.”

That means you can take it and look at it regularly, to check who they’ve been calling or texting or where they’ve been online. If inappropriate use, then you can confiscate the phone for awhile, because it’s your phone.

I wouldn’t lay this on a child in a heavy-handed authoritarian way. I’d put it more positively, “This is the way you can get your own cellphone. I need to have a way of knowing it’s going to be OK and that you can handle the responsibility.”

That may sound extreme to some people, but the point is, there should be limits and supervision at first when a child gets his first cell phone. You and your family need to work them out. And the best way to start is to have good, two-way conversations (where you listen as well as talk), with your partner, other parents, and most importantly, your child. Good luck with it.

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