This week’s question is from Priscilla she wants to know what age is appropriate for a smartphone,
“I have two daughters, ages 9 and 12, and both are begging to get an iPhone for Christmas this year. My husband and I have somewhat different opinions on this. I’m less comfortable with it than he is. I know there are lots of concerns with kids having their own phones, and honestly, it just feels like one more major thing that’s going to be left for me to manage. I’m wondering your opinion on smartphones for kids and when is the right age to get them.”
In this episode, I will address age-appropriate smartphones. At some point, all parents will have to deal with deciding when it is appropriate to buy a smartphone for their child. Although there are no hard and fast rules for when it is appropriate, there are many things to consider. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of smartphones, criteria, and questions to help you decide when your child may be developmentally ready to handle the responsibilities of a phone, and once that is decided, how to set expectations, boundaries, and monitoring of the devices.
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Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:00:48
Benefits of Smartphones for Kids … 00:02:27
Negative Sides of Smartphones for Kids … 00:04:25
What Age is Appropriate for a Smartphone … 00:08:05
Checklist for Assessing Readiness of Your Child … 00:09:55
Developing Guidelines for Smartphone Usage … 00:19:50
Nighttime Rules for Phone Usage … 00:20:07
Being Open with Monitoring Apps and Expectations … 00:22:38
Better Behavior in a Digital World Workshop & Episode Wrap up… 00:24:57
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi, everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. We are going to be talking about your child’s first smartphone, and all the things that go into figuring out when they might be ready and how to deal with all that. So this specific question comes from Priscilla, who writes: “I have two daughters, ages 9 and 12, and both are begging to get an iPhone for Christmas this year. My husband and I have somewhat different opinions on this. I’m less comfortable with it than he is. I know there are lots of concerns with kids having their own phone, and honestly, it just feels like one more major thing that’s going to be left for me to manage. I’m wondering your opinion on smartphones for kids and when is the right age to get them.” It’s a great question, one I know all of you as parents will deal with at some point, if you haven’t already, and it’s tricky. I want to start out the conversation around this by saying that I don’t think there are any real hard and fast rules around this. I definitely have my professional opinions on this, based on lots of years of not only being a parent myself and navigating these issues, but working with lots of kids. So I’ve got some ideas around this and some experience that I think is valuable. But really, it’s up to each of you as individual parents to decide what is appropriate for your child and your family, but you want to do that making sure that you’ve taken the time to think through everything. Sometimes what I see happen for parents and kids is the holidays come around or a birthday or something like that, and the kids are so wanting this, and as parents, it just feels like “Okay, this would be an easy gift, great”, and you just sort of do it without really thinking it all the way through. So kudos to Priscilla and all the rest of you who are really wrestling with this and thinking about this. It’s a big decision, and you are wise to consider it carefully.
Let’s start out by talking about some of the potential pros and cons around this, because I think it’s important to recognize that there certainly are some benefits. Phones are convenient. They bring an element of convenience for parents as well, making it easier to text, or call, or get a hold of kids when plans change, or whatever. We have busy schedules, and kids having a smartphone can be helpful. So that can certainly be a benefit. They also can provide social opportunities, especially in the world that we live in today and with the pandemic still ongoing. There’s a lot of socialization for kids that happens online, on apps, on devices, and there can certainly be positive elements to that, that we want to consider. Technology is definitely more important than ever before for school, for learning kinds of pursuits, and that’s a benefit. They are used a lot in education. I know for my own kids, there have been benefits for them at the high school level with even having their own device and being able to do things on that for school. So certainly, there are situations where it can be helpful for kids to have access to a smartphone for class activities or other kinds of things. They can also bring some benefits in terms of quality of life as well, when they are used in a healthy, balanced way. They can provide a way to relax after a long day. There are great tools even for developing skills in the realms of mindfulness and emotional regulation and things like that that can be used. Music is another great thing. As a family, we really love listening to music when we are doing lots of things around the house, and those devices allow for ease of that, and even having a family plan for music sharing apps or things like that. So certainly there are benefits to consider.
There are also a lot of potential drawbacks or cons to consider when thinking about kids and them having their own smartphone. These devices absolutely can be distracting. That can happen at home, that can happen at school, that can happen in other places. And if you have a child who already is struggling to manage their time and attention when they don’t have a smartphone, it’s likely to be an even bigger problem when they do have constant access to one. So that’s something to consider. They can also create this sort of multitasking environment for kids a lot of the time, where it’s like, “Well, I’m doing my schoolwork, but also I’ve got one eye over here on the text thread, and I’ve got this app going”, and we know that media multitasking is really detrimental for kids especially, I mean for all of us, but for kids especially, so we want to be thinking about that. One of the big safety drawbacks is that smartphones definitely provide an avenue for access to inappropriate content, whether kids are intending to seek out and access that content or not, it’s one of the big avenues where they are exposed to it, whether that’s pornography, whether that is content around violence, whether it’s content around abuse, or other things that could potentially be harmful or dangerous, things like eating disorders, all kinds of content that, unfortunately, is glorified and sometimes promoted, especially towards teens and kids. And that’s unfortunate, but it is a reality of the internet, a reality of these apps, and we just have to know that when kids have access to a smartphone all the time, the potential for them to be exposed to that is much greater. It’s really a given, even with parental controls and things in place. And so they need to be at a developmental stage where they can handle that, and you have to be in a place where you are willing to have ongoing conversation and oversight with that. Smartphones also can increase the risk of bullying and other social issues. These devices, they definitely can allow for more social connections, But they can also allow for the use of apps and texting and other kinds of social platforms where online bullying, cyber bullying can take place, and so your kids need to be aware of that and how to handle that, and you as parents do as well. That can be another issue that comes up.
And I think the big piece to really look at is having a smartphone is a huge responsibility for your child and for you. We don’t often think about the responsibility that comes in giving our kids a smartphone, but it’s a really big one. Phones are expensive, obviously. They can be easily lost or damaged. So there’s those practical responsibilities to think about and just the financial issues to weigh, but they also require a high degree of responsibility on the child’s part to not only manage the device itself without breaking it or losing it, but using it within the parameters that you’ve set up with them, not accessing things that are problematic intentionally, not using it to potentially get into situations that are going to be problematic. And for us, as parents, we need to be ready for the responsibility as well. Because as Priscilla alluded to in her question, the reality is this is one more big thing for us to take on and manage. There’s no way around that if we are going to do this in a healthy way. So I think those are some of the pros and cons to consider.
There are also many specific factors related to your child and your family situation that you need to be thinking about. Your child’s age is certainly one consideration. I find age can be a general benchmark, but I really think it’s more helpful to look at the child’s overall level of development, their level of maturity, and responsibility, because that can vary widely. And so this idea that, “Well, by x age kids are ready for their own smartphone”, I don’t buy into that at all. I think we need to look at the child on an individual level. And what’s their level of trustworthiness? What are they showing, maturity-wise? How are they able to regulate their emotions and behaviors? What’s their level of responsibility like for belongings? These are all things that we really want to be thinking about along with, obviously, in general, their age and developmental level, in terms of being able to handle the things that they might come in contact with by using a smartphone. So those are things that you really want to be thinking about.
To me, my firm professional opinion, and this has also been my personal stance as a parent, is that most kids under the age of 13 years are not good candidates for smartphones. Certainly there can be exceptions. That’s a general age guideline, but I have found that to be pretty accurate, that thinking about a true smartphone, and all the things that come along with that prior to age 13 generally isn’t a developmental fit. And I also want to say that there are absolutely situations where a child over the age of 13 still isn’t developmentally ready to manage a smartphone appropriately.
So you want to take into account those individual pieces, but here are some things that I have used myself, and really encourage parents at my clinic to think about in terms of assessing readiness for your child to have their own smartphone. And I should say here that when we are talking about smartphones, we are talking about a device with internet connection capability, with the capability of having internet connected apps. There are great options now for phones that look like smartphones and have some of those features like texting and calling and some basic apps like music and weather and photos and things like that, but do not have internet access capabilities. Those are awesome options for developmentally younger kids or even older kids who need some practice with managing a device like this before you give them a full-fledged smartphone. So keep in mind that when we are talking about smartphone readiness, we are talking about phones that have internet access, that have the capability to access the internet and everything on the internet, that access internet connected apps, those kinds of things. So, just to be clear about that.
So here’s the checklist I think is helpful to determine readiness, or at least to help you think through some of these things. The first is: Is your child prone to losing things? Does he or she manage belongings appropriately? Think about in general, what your experience is with your child around this. Are they constantly losing things? Are they constantly asking you to help them find things? Are you constantly having to replace things because they are lost, because they are broken? Do you run into problems with your child managing their current belongings appropriately? All important things to bear in mind. The second thing is: Does your child generally follow rules and expectations you set? Are they often disrespectful or non-compliant with rules and expectations? Again, know where your child is at with this stuff. If you are already running into a lot of difficulties with your child understanding and following rules and expectations in general, in life in your home, or at school, if you are already struggling with a lot of disrespect, non-compliance — that can be intentional or unintentional. Some kids have neurodevelopmental issues and other challenges that make it difficult for them to manage expectations in the way that we would want them to. But if you are already struggling with some of those things with the basics in life, you really want to think about whether putting a smartphone in the mix is going to be helpful to that or create another area where you are really going to struggle with your child. The third thing: Is your child trustworthy? Now we can define this in lots of different ways, but how do you define it? Think about that for yourself? Do I feel like this child, who I’m considering getting the smartphone for, is generally trustworthy? Now, certainly no one is trustworthy 100% of the time, and we expect that kids, particularly in different developmental phases, may have some issues with lying or trustworthiness. But in general, how trustworthy is your child? That’s a good barometer of figuring out whether they are ready for a smartphone. The fourth thing: Does your child manage things like chores, homework or other tasks and responsibilities appropriately? To me, these are some foundational prerequisites for taking on the task and responsibility of not only managing the physical smartphone appropriately, but also managing their use of it. If you have a child who’s resistant to these things, who hasn’t shown that they can manage a basic developmentally-appropriate level of chores, other tasks and responsibilities, then that is a starting point before a smartphone comes into the picture. The next one: Has your child exhibited unsafe or inappropriate behavior related to electronics or digital media, at home, at school, at friend’s houses? Is this already an issue that’s come up? Does your child have a history or track record at this point of searching for inappropriate things, of not following the rules, of being in a different environment and trying to access things that you have been clear are unsafe or inappropriate? Again, this gives you a way of gauging what they are doing right now, and is that likely to be more of a problem if they have their own smartphone? Next: Are you willing to set and consistently enforce expectations and consequences for device-related behavior? This is a “you” question. Are you, as the parent, as the adult willing to be clear about your expectations, to work on developing those with your child, to lay out what will happen if those expectations aren’t met, or if there is unsafe behavior, or if the phone gets broken, or whatever it might be? If you are not ready to do that and engage in those conversations ongoing and monitor those things ongoing, then it’s probably not a good idea for your child to have one of these devices. Next, is your child willing to sign a contract or agreement detailing the expectations for using devices and digital media? I think this is really important to do with kids because it makes it clear what expectations have we agreed on, what we have talked about, what we are saying both of us are understanding and in agreement on, and it makes it clear so that if there are problems and difficulties — and there will be, because they are kids, there will be challenges that come up, you can come back to this agreement and say, “Let’s review the things that we agreed on. Let’s review the expectations. We both felt like this was reasonable. And now let’s figure out what we are going to do moving forward.” So if your child is totally unwilling to engage in a process like that, of having things really documented and written down and agreeing to them, then that should give you pause as well, about whether they are ready for one of these devices. And then finally: Are you willing to utilize parental control features? Are you willing to regularly monitor your child’s use of devices and digital media? Are you willing to engage your child in conversations about what they are seeing and who they are communicating with? These are important. Too many parents who I work with in the clinic have just given their kid a smartphone without thinking it through, without understanding themselves how to use the device, how to set up the safety features, how to use the control features that come on there. And that is really problematic. That’s the equivalent of giving a child who doesn’t even have their driver’s license a Ferrari and saying, “Well, good luck, I hope that works out for you.” We need to take responsibility if we are going to put these devices in the hands of our kids. We need to take responsibility for making sure that we have set them up in a way that is safe and healthier for them. That doesn’t mean micromanaging every single text, that doesn’t mean locking down devices and being super authoritarian about them, but it does mean recognizing their developmental level, recognizing the areas where they are still learning and growing and saying, “Hey, we are going to do this in a way that helps prioritize your safety, your health, your well-being.”
So those are some of the sort of checklist questions I encourage you to think about. If you do decide that “I think my child is ready for a smartphone,” then that’s great. Now you need to work together to try to set up a process and a system that’s going to be healthy and effective for them and for you. So as I mentioned, sitting down and creating a contract or an agreement about how these are going to be used and not used. What are the expectations? Those kinds of things. The American Academy of Pediatrics actually has a nice website around this. You can go to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and they have got some downloads for tech contracts and things to consider around this, so you might find those helpful. But I think it’s really important to establish clear rules about things like daily time limits, what apps are going to be allowed, where are the no phone zones in your home or at school? What will the consequence be? What will happen if the phone gets broken? What will happen if the phone gets lost? What will happen if your child is accessing inappropriate content repeatedly? Mistakes happen, we understand that, but repeatedly. So you want to be thinking about these things and talking with your child ahead of time saying, “Hey, this is a big decision, so let’s work on this together. Let’s set some clear expectations.”
I also encourage a plan for night time. This can be a big issue that I think a lot of parents are not aware of that impacts kids’ sleep and can be a real safety concern. My hard and fast rule is that there are no internet-connected, no screens, no phone devices in the bedroom at night. Nothing safe or appropriate or healthy happens for kids in the middle of the night on these devices, and I can’t tell you the number of young people I work with who tell me, when their parent isn’t in the room, that they are getting maybe two to four hours of sleep a night because they wake up to notifications or their friend is texting them with all kinds of things, or notifications from Snapchat, or they wake up to use the bathroom, they come back to bed, they can’t fall asleep right away, and so they are scrolling on their device for a couple of hours. Even if you think this wouldn’t be your child. We don’t want to set them up for them to the temptation of that. And it’s also just not safe. A lot of the really awful things that I have had to deal with kids and parents around with internet connected devices have happened late at night during the night, when parents weren’t aware. So think about how you want to handle that. Is there going to be a central area in the house where things are left? What time do those need to be powered down? What are the time limits and parental screen time controls that you have set up to make sure that devices can’t be at those times? That type of thing.
And then talk with your child about how you plan to monitor, whether you are going to use an app — I use Qustodio, that’s just the one I’ve personally used for years and also have done in recent years some consulting and app ambassador work for them, so I think that’s a great one. There are several of them out there that are really good. You can also use the screen time controls and things that come on most devices these days, but be open about that with your kids. “Hey, this is one of the things that needs to be in place in order for you to have this device, because it’s my job as your parent to make sure that you are safe, to make sure that you are healthy, and one of the ways I need to do that is to monitor and have these apps or features on there.” If your child is totally against that, that is an indicator right there that they are not ready, they are not mature enough to handle this. So be upfront about it and let them know: “These need to stay turned on, on your devices. If we discover that you are removing parental control apps or things like that, then that’s grounds for us to sit down and have a conversation and probably say you are not quite ready to have the device yet.” So be open about that. If you plan to sit down and look at their web browsing history, for example, let them know that. Don’t keep secrets around that. Be open with it. And then follow through with having those conversations, with sitting down and connecting around, “Hey, show me some of the things in your feed on Instagram today”, or whatever it is. And remember too, on the lines of apps, that just because your child may feel like they are ready for a smartphone, doesn’t mean you have to open up the entire realm of apps and everything else to them. There’s a process for that as well. You may start out with just a couple of apps or one social media app, and kind of gauge from there and build up. That’s a great way to do it, but just bear that in mind that if you determine that you think your child is ready to have their own smartphone, that does not mean that you have to open up the entire world of social media and apps and games and everything else. You can determine when and how to slowly add those things into the mix, so that they can have the opportunity to develop more responsibility and success with these things as they go along.
So I hope that those things are helpful for you to consider, whether you are thinking about potentially getting your child a smartphone now, or will cross that bridge sometime in the future. This gives you some important things to think about. I will also let you know, along the lines of technology and access and safety and health and behavior and all of that, I do have a specific workshop around this topic, called Better Behavior in a Digital World. You can find it at drnicoleworkshops.com. That is a pretty extensive workshop. Several modules, a lot of information that takes you through all of this and much more for little kids all the way up through our young adult kids, all kinds of devices, all kinds of things to be thinking about and how to manage some of the real behavioral challenges that can come up around screen time for kids. So if you think that would be helpful, you can check out that Better Behavior In a Digital World, drnicoleworkshops.com. I hope that this information today is helpful for Priscilla and all of the rest of you addressing this issue. Remember, if you have a question you would like to hear answered on a future show, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks, as always, for being here and for listening, and I will catch you back here next time.