This story appears in ParentMap's November 2017 print edition. Subscribe today!
“Mooommmm, when can I get a cell phone? All my friends have one.”
“Do they?” you may wonder. Yes, they probably do.
An American child gets their first cell phone around age 10, according to the digital marketing outfit Influence Central. That means if your child is in fourth or fifth grade, there’s a good chance that many of their friends already have a phone of their own.
A common reason for this: There’s no other phone at home. Fifty-five percent of children live in a home without a landline, according to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“My fifth-grade son is alone for up to 30 minutes in the morning, and we don’t have a home phone,” says Carrie Milbrot of Bremerton. To keep her son connected during those hours alone, she bought him a cell phone.
The list of other reasons to get a phone may seem endless, but how do you know if it’s the right time? First, realize that you don’t have to start with a fully tricked-out smartphone, says Darren Laur.
Laur, who runs a personal protection program out of Victoria, British Columbia, frequently travels around the U.S. and Canada discussing internet, cell phone and social media safety with families. You may know him by his moniker “The White Hatter” (he often wears a white hat to presentations).
Can they control their impulses and honor boundaries? Age doesn’t always provide a clear answer.
He recommends easing a child into the world of cell phones with devices such as the rugged DuraXE flip phone from Kyocera, which runs about $270, depending on the plan. “It allows kids to text, take some pictures, call,” he says. “It’s like putting training wheels on a bike. You don’t go out and buy your kid the most expensive bike until they learn how to ride.”
Another option: The LG GizmoGadget ($149 from Verizon) allows users to make calls to 10 preselected contacts, has GPS monitoring and sends short text messages.
However, Laur urges that even before getting a training-wheels version, parents should consider their child’s specific social and emotional maturity levels. Can they control their impulses and honor boundaries? Age doesn’t always provide a clear answer, either.
“I have known some tweens in sixth and seventh grade who have the [necessary] impulse control, and some teens in 12th grade who don’t,” Laur says.
Also, consider writing a collective family agreement about cell phones, he says. The goal is to clearly outline expectations you have concerning cell phone usage and the consequences if your child breaks the agreement. Be sure to include cell phone use outside of the home, including at school.
Different schools have different policies when it comes to cell phones.
“Our policy for elementary cell phone use varies from building to building, ranging from ‘allowed but kept put away’ to ‘not allowed and, if discovered, taken away,’” says Rae McNally, spokeswoman for Tacoma Public Schools.
The same is true for Seattle Public Schools, says spokeswoman Kimberley Schmanke.
"It is up to individual schools to set up and communicate their own practices," she says.
Regardless of a school’s particular policy, what matters most is that parents understand that they have a right to monitor their child’s activity, Laur says. He recommends the parental control apps Netsanity for iPhones and iPads, and Boomerang Parental Control for Androids. Such parental control apps often have features that allow parents to set bedtime, control content, block certain social media sites, and restrict use of the camera and the ability to make screenshots.
Without a parent’s oversight, Laur says, giving smartphones to children is a recipe for disaster.
“They need to be more mature and be able to understand boundaries,” he says. “Give them consequences. Kids will always push back on you. But if there are no consequences, what’s the impetus for change?”