So your child has been clamoring for months, if not years, and you’re still not sure it’s the right time for that first phone. You are wise to think it over carefully because giving a smartphone has more strings attached than the most sought-after pair of sneakers.
For some kids, a phone is a necessity from an early age so they can keep in touch when transferring between caregivers. But if your child is always under the watchful eye of an adult (at home, on the bus, or in school), having a phone may be more of a want than a need.
To determine if you and your child are ready for this life-changing milestone, ask yourself these questions:
Does my child really know herself?
The early pre-digital years–when a child is still a wild human–is the only time in life when she can spend full time sensing the world and discovering her unique powers as a human animal. This is the time when she learns the capabilities of her own body and mind. By the time kids get to elementary school, new research shows that many don’t have a good sense of balance, direction, or even their own strength. As it says in The Durable Human Manifesto, “if kids spend too much time with technology too soon, they may never fully establish their own operating systems and understand what makes themselves tick.”
Is my child ready to step up?
What parents may not realize until too late is that giving a child a phone ends the simplicity of childhood. A child will never skip as high with a phone in his pocket. He’ll be forever saddled with adult-like responsibilities such as keeping an expensive and delicate object charged and out of the toilet. Take a look at whether he is handling responsibility in other aspects of his life. Consider having him earn the right to have a phone by showing that he can be ready on time, do chores, etc.
Am I ready to rock the family boat?
Once a child has a cellphone, it permanently changes the family balance of power. Life becomes a lot more complicated because he will begin to operate outside your oversight. Even if you use monitoring tools, it’s much harder to keep track of your child’s social life, whether off or online. If you don’t feel comfortable dropping off your child alone at a shopping mall, he may not be ready for a full-scale smartphone. Consider allowing him to use a stripped down family loaner for the first year which can be checked in and out of the house from a central location, such as a basket by the door.
For these and other reasons, if you decide to hold off giving your child full access to his or her own phone, it will give you both more time to prepare. To do that, I would suggest reading two books. Screenwise, Helping Kids Survive (and Thrive) in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitman, has excellent advice for you (as your child’s technology mentor) about how to bring up a good digital citizen who knows how to navigate online as well as to be a good friend in real life. The second title is Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children by Angela Hanscom, which explains how to instill the non-tech skills your child needs to become a durable, self-reliant adult.
It’s also a good idea to sit down with each of your kids to plan out a balanced day using the American Academy of Pediatrics new Media Time Calculator. It pre-populates with the recommended amount of sleep and physical activity so media use is put into perspective with all your child’s needs over a 24-hour day. Here’s a 3 minute demo:
For more information and inspiration for raising active, engaged kids who know their way around the natural and digital worlds, also check out How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design. Each practical chapter includes a special section just for parents.
This post was revised in December, 2016