At What Age Should My Child Have a Cell Phone?

By Betsy Brown Braun

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a clear answer to this question? There isn’t. As with every decision you will make regarding your child, this one is about your particular child and you. The only thing I know for sure is that “all my friends have one” is not a good enough reason for allowing your child to have a cell phone (or anything, for that matter!).

I am also quite sure that somewhere around the age of 8 or 9 years, your child will claim that she really needs a cell phone. (How interesting it is that most of children’s wants become neeeeeds.) You are likely to hear a lot of pleading from this age child. Cover your ears.

While there are those who might disagree, my research on this topic yielded one clear guideline. There is consensus that elementary school age children are too young for cell phones. Therefore, sometime during the middle and high school years is the right age. But how do you decide?

Cell phones today are not just cell phones. The factory equipped model comes complete with functioning far beyond that of your first cell phone: internet access, email, IM-ing, texting, camera/video, video games, and endless uploading capacity. When you grant cell phone permission, you are opening the door for permissions and access to whole new worlds, be assured.

As your children grow, so do their opportunities for mischief and misbehavior of all kinds. After all, learning to do the right thing is usually accompanied by experiments in doing the opposite. There is no question that cell phones offer opportunities for children to experiment in uncharted territories of all kinds. And in fact, when granting cell phone usage you are handing to your young child powerful options meant for adult use. You are also giving him the opportunity to explore worlds outside of your supervision. Please don’t even think that your child won’t go there. He is a child; of course he will!

Predators, cyberbullying, inappropriate content, mischief, theft, loss, hidden costs are just a few of the risks that can accompany cell phone usage.

Having a cell phone is not a God given right. It is a privilege. And if your answer is that your child needs a cell phone for safety, I suggest you run to invest in a Fire Fly or Tic Talk, one of the cell phones which offers a very limited number of accessible phone numbers. No frills. No worries.

Otherwise, consider the following:

How responsible is your child (within reason)?

  • At Keeping his word
  • Following through with your requests…in a timely manner
  • Meeting his stated responsibilities…mostly without reminders
  • Managing his personal responsibilities
  • Accepting responsibility for his choices and behavior

Regardless of when cell phone permission is granted, the child must be an active participant in the privilege of having it. By all means make responsibility a part of his permission to have a cell phone.

Before the permission is granted, each child needs to be party to an agreement (cell phone contract between parent and child), that outlines your expectations of the child which enable him to have the cell phone privilege.

The child should participate in the financial responsibility for the phone. You might pay the base fee, but he pays for the texting. You might have paid for the first phone, but he pays for the replacements. Each family will have a different plan for fiscal participation and responsibility.

The caveats are endless when it comes to cell phone use and your child’s journey out of your reach. Just remember, your ability to supervise your child at home is much greater than it is when he leaves the nest, whether by foot or by technology. The best you can hope to do is prepare your child for his journey because you sure can’t prepare the pathway for him. It is precisely for this reason that you should think twice and more when deciding when to give your child a cell phone.

Betsy Brown Braun, best-selling author of Just Tell Me What to Say and You're Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4 to 12-Year Old Child, is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant and founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc. She is also the mom of adult triplets and is an occasional guest columnist for The Online Mom.

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