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What’s the Right Age for a First Cell Phone?

By Nicola Freeman

What’s the right age to give your child his or her first cell phone? For parents, it’s become one of the most vexing questions of the digital age and one that’s increasingly hard to answer with any kind of consistency. While my oldest child didn’t get her own cell phone until she was 15, my middle child got hers on her thirteenth birthday. And now my son is demanding his own phone at the ripe old age of 11!

While you might think 11 is way too young to have ownership of something as powerful and expensive as a cell phone, you are probably in the minority. As my son is fond of reminding me, everyone in his class has one, and based on his friends that come to our house, he’s probably right!

So what is a parent to do? Do we just put aside our misgivings and give in, or do we hold out until our kids are old enough to use a phone responsibly? As I mentioned above, there is probably no one right answer; everything depends on your individual family circumstances. But in making your decision, here are a few things you might want to consider:

Will your child use the phone?

It may be great for your child to be the first person in her grade to own a cell phone, but if she's the only one, who is she going to call or text? Most cell phones purchased for kids under the age of 11 sit in a kitchen drawer gathering dust.

Some parents say they like to be able to reach their children in an emergency, but that assumes they are without adult supervision. I can’t think of any circumstances in which I would need to contact my 11-year-old without being able to reach an adult or older sibling.

Does your child respect expensive things?

If your tween has a habit of breaking everything he gets his hands on, then maybe it's too early for an iPhone. Similarly, if you're always going to the Lost & Found, it might not be a good idea to put him in charge of a Samsung Galaxy S III. If you do buy your child a phone, start him off at the lower end of the price range. If he can still find the phone a year later, then maybe it's time to move up!

Smartphones are for smart people

A smartphone is not just a phone; it's a camera, it's a GPS device, it's a gaming console, and it's a gateway to the Internet. OK, your child might not use those features and you can always lock down Internet access, but then why give him the device in the first place? Don't buy your child a smartphone until they are smart enough to use it.

Don't be afraid to take the cell phone away

Just because you gave your child a phone, it doesn't mean that it's his to use wherever and whenever he wants – at least not while you're paying the bill! Don't be afraid to take the phone away if it’s being misused or if rules are being broken. A friend of mine has a strict no cell phones rule on sleepovers. A perfectly sensible rule when all the kids are on sugar overload and they think it would be fun to start texting the new girl at school!

Monitor total screen time

A recent survey found that the average American child is still watching four hours of television a day. Add on video gaming, computer time, and texting and it's surprising that they ever get up off the couch. Don't let cell phone time be an add-on to all the other screen time. Carefully monitor total screen time and be firm about shutting down cell phones and other gadgets when the allotted time is up.

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