Is It Time Yet? When Should I Buy a Cellphone for My Child?

The average child gets his first smartphone at age 10, but is “everybody has one” a good enough reason to let your child enter the world of unlimited internet access and limited parental oversight with a powerful minicomputer in his back pocket? Social pressure, pleading kids, a need for quick and reliable communication, the simple attraction of easy internet access, or just a desire to stop sharing your own phone may be pushing you toward buying your child his own smartphone. Before you do, weigh the pros, the cons and the need for maturity rather than a hard-and-fast age cutoff.

How Will It Affect Health and Safety?

One obvious benefit of smartphone ownership for kids is the ability to quickly contact parents or other responsible adults if the need arises. From scheduling routine pickup and drop-off times for sports or after-school jobs to the occasional emergency call for assistance, your child may be safer with a cellphone. Still, pause to consider some negative ways in which cell phones impact health and safety. Extra screen time often leads to a more sedentary lifestyle, which replaces healthy physical activity and can lead to obesity. Radiation from cellphones and Wi-Fi has possible health risks, especially for kids, whose brains and bodies are still developing. Excessive cellphone use is linked to increased mental health problems such as depression, and increased internet access can expose kids to predatory adults and inappropriate sexual content that can encourage risky behavior.

How Will It Affect School?

Smartphones can be an incredibly useful educational tools when used for calculations or academic research. However, with constant access to a smartphone, your child may find himself distracted from homework by social media, calls, texts, games, videos and random scrolling. If your child’s teacher and school aren’t strict about cellphone use, phones can also be a huge distraction in the classroom, even increasing the temptation to cheat on tests by illicitly looking up answers online or texting classmates for help. Remember, most of the educational benefits of smartphones are just as available on laptops and tablets, which don’t come with the same drawbacks of constant, in-the-pocket access.

How Will It Affect Social Interactions?

Perhaps the biggest reason your kid wants his own cell phone is to be like his peers. If everyone else is interacting on social media and text, he may feel left out and ignored. The possibility of online friendships and creative interaction is an often-cited benefit of kids using smartphones, but the social aspect of cellphone use is fraught with problems. Kids are often targets of bullying online, or they may dish it out themselves. They may also write words or post pictures that they later regret, not realizing that they are saved in internet-land permanently. Bad manners and behaviors you wouldn’t tolerate in face-to-face interactions are easier to get away with online and tougher for parents to correct. Constant use of smartphones for communication may also lead to your child being less adept at in-person conversation and socializing.

Count the Cost

If you think the positive uses outweigh the potential risks of getting your child a cellphone, be sure you are prepared for the financial outlay. Is your child responsible with other possessions and ready to be trusted with a costly new device? Who buys the phone and pays for the usage plan – you or your child? Don’t forget the hidden costs of replacement insurance, extra data costs, and the purchase of games and apps. Setting financial expectations from the outset can help you avoid conflict later over damaged phones, unplanned purchases and extra downloads.

Well, Is It Time?

While most kids have their own cell phones before they hit the teenage years, many parents opt to set the boundary at high school age. Families have different needs, and kids have different personalities. What’s OK for one may be disastrous for another. At the end of the day, your decision ought to rest on your kid’s demonstrated level of responsibility, maturity in social situations, ability to say “no” to temptation, and honesty with you about his internet use. If you decide to jump in, be sure to maintain appropriate boundaries, including restrictions on cellphone use that interferes with mealtimes, healthy levels of physical activity, plenty of sleep, schoolwork and face-to-face interaction with people. Check in with your child regularly on his browsing, downloading and social media activity and be prepared to revoke phone privileges for unacceptable behaviors. Through your words of guidance and your own (hopefully) moderate and disciplined cellphone use, you can teach your child a balanced approach to his new smartphone.


Amy Smith is a TechDen contributing writer, specializing in family and parenting. She teaches English, Latin, and music at a private school and lives with her husband and five children on a small homestead in rural Pennsylvania.