What Parents Should Know About Giving Tweens a Phone

The number of kids with smartphones has increased dramatically.

Parents considering getting their child a phone face many questions: What is the best age to give the child a phone? What kind of phone is best? What rules need to be established before giving the phone to the child? We tapped experts on technology and teens for some answers.

At what age should a child have a phone?

“Every kid is a little different, so the answer to that question varies depending on the family situation and child,” says Justin Patchin, Ph.D., co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “Often, kids get a phone when it’s convenient for the parent.”

He advises against parents delaying too long when getting their child a phone. “If you introduce a phone at an early age, you can put restrictions on it, including the people they call,” he says. “Start out slow with just mom and dad and see how they do. If they demonstrate responsibility, open it up to other people, then open up to texting or certain amounts of data, and so on.”

Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives, suggests that parents ask themselves if their child is ready to make good decisions, handle conflict and be thoughtful. She also says parents need to ask themselves if they’re ready to take it away.

What kind of phone is best for tweens?

Once parents have decided to get their child a phone, they must decide which phone is the best option for the family.

“You don’t want to give your 10-year-old an iPhone 6,” Patchin cautions. “That’s like giving a 16-year-old a Corvette. There’s so much power there that they’re going to get into trouble.”

Instead of a splurging on a fully-loaded smartphone, consider that a “dumb phone” that does not have Internet access is often sufficient, according to Diana Graber, digital literacy educator and co-founder of CyberWise. “If they are getting started before 12, they absolutely need training wheels. It’s essential,” she says.

“If you look at developmental psychology, kids don’t use abstract and ethical thinking until around age 12 or 13, so connecting them to a wider universe before that age isn’t so wise,” Graber says. “Start with a smaller phone with fewer capabilities before giving them a device that has wider interaction.”

In addition, having a less expensive phone may be a relief to your child, though he or she may not admit it. “It’s a lot of stress on a kid to keep track of something that’s so expensive,” Heitner says.

“Not all kids need a smartphone, and that’s one reason why our basic phones do well. It’s all kids need,” says Linda Kerr, director of marketing at Kajeet, a company founded by parents who wanted to provide cell-phone options for kids. Their customer base is between ages 9 and 16. Companies like Kajeet and Scratch offer monthly plans aimed at providing service for kids, but most phone companies offer parental monitoring features, often at a price.

In addition to sending parents weekly emails detailing the calls and texts sent and received and number of minutes used, Kajeet offers numerous parental controls. The two most popular controls are the GPS phone locator and the contact manager. The contact manager has become more popular as cyber bullying has become more prevalent. Kerr says, “If someone is bothering your kid, you can simply turn off that number so they’re not contacting your kid.”

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all program, but rather an option to customize your usage to what you need for your family,” Kerr says.

What rules need to be established before giving the phone to the child?

  • Consider a technology contract.

With a contract, the entire family can literally be on the same page regarding rules and expectations. Because the majority of phones have access to the Internet, Patchin says that phones and computers are now “one and the same.” He recommends that parents have a technology-use contract that covers the usage of both phones and computers and includes requirements for both kid and parents.

  • Talk to your child.

All the experts stressed the importance of open lines of communication between young phone users and their parents. “It is more important to mentor than monitor. Talk to your kid about what they’re doing instead of just reading all their texts,” Heitner says. “You will know more if you have an actual conversation with them.”

Heitner also suggests reviewing the rules at home, at school, on the bus and other locations where kids will take their phones. “Kids should know that they are responsible for following school policies, but parents should know the policies first and discuss them,” she says.

“Everyone needs to come to the table and talk about the right things to do with the phone and how to use it for good,” Kerr says. That includes not handling conflict over technology but rather handling conversations with friends face to face as much as possible.

Parents also should make it clear to kids that they are available at any time if the child has a problem. Establishing an ongoing dialogue now will have benefits down the road.

“You have to develop the open relationship early on,” Graber advises. “You can’t just jump in and do it in high school.“

  • Model good behavior.

Parents need to display the behavior they want to see from their kids now and in the future. This includes not texting and driving and also watching social media posting, but it also goes beyond those steps.

“Modeling behavior is more than just showing up to dinner unplugged,” Heitner says. “It’s about being unconnected and with them as much as possible.” She explained that kids could experience pressure with a phone and feel like they need to keep up with all the communication. Kids need to know that it is OK to be unplugged.”