At what age should a child get a cell phone?

Deciding when to buy your child a cellphone can be troubling. There is no perfect answer on the exact time frame. It depends on the child’s maturity level, whether they are left alone or walking alone and a phone is desired for safety reasons, and the child’s general level of supervision.

The decision to give a child a cell phone is an personal choice for families, however, I would err on the side of waiting longer to give a cellphone to your child. I personally say not younger than 10. In my own family, my 10-year-old daughter does not have a cellphone and probably won’t for at least two years – if not longer – and she is a quite mature and responsible child. There are several developmental and health concerns:

  • First, it is very important for children to learn how to develop and negotiate relationships in a healthy way. Texting, emailing, and social media should be seen as a supplement to relationship development and not as a main strategy. Young children do not always have good impulse control and relying on them to regulate their use of the cellphone – which may have internet capabilities – in their friend relationships in a responsible and healthy way is not realistic.
  • Screen time takes away from time spent reading books, playing, and being active, and if a child has his or her own cellphone, it is even harder to regulate the amount of screen time he or she has. There are also increasing incidents of online bullying, sexting, and other problematic behaviors.

My daughter is not pleased about this idea, but I recommend starting with a simple phone without internet or smartphone capacities. Calling for emergencies or ride coordination are the main reasons a cellphone is needed for children. This allows parents to monitor phone activity with only limited calling and texting options available and provides an opportunity for teaching about safe and responsible use before “graduating” the child to a smartphone.

Have very frank and open discussions about online dangers that can come with smartphone use and how to avoid and manage them. Be up front with your child about the fact that you will be monitoring usage and intervening if there are concerns. For older teens that are driving, be very clear about a no texting or calling while driving rule, which is banned in most states, and be sure to practice what you preach!  Also use your own cellphone as an opportunity to model safe and responsible usage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lee Beers Lee Beers, MD, is a general pediatrician at Children’s National and the Medical Director for Municipal and Regional Affairs at the Child Health Advocacy Institute.
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