Kids and Smartphones: What Age Is The Right Age?

“What age do you think it’s appropriate for my kids’ to have their own smartphone?” It’s a question I get almost daily from the thousands of parents I talk with throughout this country. I’ll be honest – I hate answering this question. First and foremost, I know that most kids are getting their VERY OWN SMARTPHONE around 4th grade these days (which means the majority of my audience already made this decision and may not like what I’m about to say). Second, because while I firmly believe 4th grade is WAY to early for kids to be walking around with their own smartphones, I acknowledge and respect that not every household or child is the same, so there is really not a one-size-fits-all answer.

Regardless of the circumstances in your household, it’s imperative to carefully and thoughtfully ponder this decision before handing this fully accessible device over to your kids – regardless of their age. This is a major responsibility not only for our kids, but for us parents as well, given the amount of time kids are spending on these devices (more than 6.5 hours according to a recent Common Sense Media report). One of my favorite analogies to discuss with parents: You wouldn’t just hand the keys to the car over to your 16-year-old and hope it all goes well – and giving them their own smartphone should be no different. Here are some things I urge parents to consider before you make this important decision.

What do they NEED this smartphone for?

Given the fact that most kids are getting their own smartphones in elementary school, I urge parents to think of what their elementary-aged kids – middle schoolers, even – NEED beyond being able to be in touch with you or their friends via a call or text. Parents rarely think about the good-old flip phone as an alternative – but I’m all for it. I’ve had parents argue that kids need a smartphone for school – but there are easy workarounds. If schools aren’t in a 1-to-1 program already, it’s possible to make a family device (such as a tablet) available when they need it for school. If you can’t make a solid argument for a smartphone over a flip phone, I’d go with the latter.

Necessity vs. social pressure

Here’s an argument I also get from parents – and I’ll quote an email I got last week from a parent of a 5th grader: “I was told it’s ‘social suicide’ if I don’t get my kid a smartphone at this point – do you see that as being the case?” This question actually prompted me to write this article, as I hear versions of this very question all the time. My answer is twofold: 1. If your child’s friends said they were jumping off a bridge – would you let them? Seriously. 2. This decision should be made based on necessity, not one made based on social pressure. At a fairly young age it conveys a pretty poor message (you must have this material item to be socially accepted); additionally, it oftentimes becomes something families regret because it’s a decision based on what others have, not what your family actually needs or is ready for. Whatever it is that you decide, please don’t let this be the reason your child gets a smartphone.

Don’t just hand it over

Whenever you decide is the right time for your child to have his/her own smartphone, it’s imperative that it comes with a clear set of rules and expectations – BEFORE they get it. I find families that have the most issues down the line are families that didn’t think to set limitations or have conversations around expected behavior. Some important expectations to consider and make clear:

-Appropriate on/off times. This includes things like how much time they’re allowed access, when and where they’re allowed access (i.e. no phones at the dinner table, no phones in the bedroom at night). One of the biggest topics of conversation right now amongst parents and professionals is the issue of technology addiction, so having clear expectations out of the gate helps us facilitate a healthy relationship with smartphones.

-What apps/sites are allowed and what aren’t. Parents can actually use the parental control settings within iTunes or Google Play to enable app approval, which makes it so that kids can’t download apps without your approval via your device. This is a great feature is not only great for appropriateness, but also keep you in the loop as new apps come out daily.

Given the prevalence of smartphones in our lives, it’s up to us to start our kids off on the right foot. When it comes down to deciding an appropriate age to give your child their own smartphone, it’s about making decisions that are best for your family, while taking into consideration the huge responsibility that comes along with them.