Deciding when the time is right for your child to get their first phone is a cause of stress and anxiety for many parents. So, if this is making your head hurt, take comfort that you are definitely not alone!
Each family has their own decision to make around what works for them. You may want your child to have a phone because they are starting to have a bit more freedom, walking to and from school, or going to after school clubs, friends’ houses without you taking them. Maybe you are fed up of hearing your child tell you how unfair life is because they are ‘literally the ONLY person they know who doesn’t have a phone’ or are you worrying about them getting left out of group chats and plans because it all seems to be arranged on phones now?
So, when is the right time and what do you need to think about before you take the plunge?
It is not just about age – nobody knows your child better than you and as we know each child is unique, their family situations are different and they develop at their own pace. There are some key questions you should ask yourself and your child before you start this journey.
What is the main purpose of giving your child a phone? Is it safety or more social, giving them the chance to stay connected with friends and not be left out?
If it is safety and your child is still at primary school there are options out there for phones that will allow calls and text messages but not internet access or ability to have social media. This can be a great introduction into the responsibility of owning a phone for your child, gives you peace of mind and a way of contacting them if needs be and stops them accessing any of the more addictive and potentially dangerous sides to smartphones.
If it is more due to the fact, they all their friends have them then it’s time for some important talks about your expectations and boundaries that will be put in place with the phone moving us nicely onto point 2…
Boundaries & expectations.
It is a lot harder to work backwards. I’m sure everyone reading this can think of a time when they wished they had stuck to their guns or not given into fussy eating, later bedtimes, homework delay tactics or one of many other options. This is the prime time to set the tone.
When and where will they be allowed the phone? (Highly recommend having it kept downstairs overnight from day 1)
What apps, social media channels and games will they be allowed to access, set up, download?
What rules will apply to the above choices – such as private social media accounts, having you as one of their followers, asking for permission to accept any friend requests, no multi-player games, or locked down groups only.
No sending photos or messages that they wouldn’t be happy being shown in school assembly.
Passwords – who sets them and can change them.
Make sure in-app purchases are disabled so they can’t run up huge bills playing games or downloading things.
Explain at any point you can pick up their phone and look through it. If they are using it responsibly this should not be of any cause for concern.
Take this opportunity to look at your own behaviour. If you have your phone at the dinner table or are checking whilst driving or in bed then your rules set to them about similar behaviours don’t carry much clout.
Talk about what will happen if any of the rules you agreed are broken. It can be good to remind your child that having this phone is not a right but a privilege – that you are paying for! So, at any time if they are misusing the phone, it can and will be removed indefinitely.
This is not about policing your child. None of us have the time or inclination to be reading every message they send and receive. Treat getting a phone like an experiment. As your child shows more responsibility, they could gain more independence and fewer controls. Keep a mentorship mindset: Check out new apps or platforms together, compare notes, and decide together what is working and what’s not. Any big pushback or fallout from this would indicate they are not ready for the responsibility of a phone just yet.
How to stay safe online and what to do if something goes wrong:
It’s vital that you talk to your child about the dangers online from talking with strangers, fake profiles, giving out personal information or sharing photos. Remind them that once something is on the internet it is effectively out there for the world to see. This is the prime time to make sure they know that they can come to you about anything they see or hear online that scares them or doesn’t feel right. They need to know they will not be in trouble and you are there to keep them safe.
- Use apps or parental controls that limit who your child can talk to and text and the types of websites they can view.
- Don’t allow your child to load video games and apps without your permission.
- Limit your child to a basic phone rather than a smartphone for as long as possible.
- Be a good role model with your own phone.
- Set screen time limits.
- Tell your child you’ll monitor their phone use closely.
- Know their passwords.
- Take away your child’s cell phone at least an hour before bedtime and charge it outside the bedroom.
- Talk to your kids about the dangers of sexting.
- Talk about what to do if they see something in appropriate or harmful.
So that’s just a really brief overview of some key topics to be thinking and talking about with your child before they get a phone as a starting point. There are many more and they need to be talked about very regularly and in an age-appropriate way. I fully appreciate that for some parents having conversations around porn, drugs, grooming can feel very challenging. It can be difficult to know when the right time is and how to bring up such topics. There are so many conversations we certainly didn’t think we’d be having with our children at primary school, but unfortunately, we absolutely do. Don’t leave it for someone else to fill their head with fear or misinformation.