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Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?

By Tracey Dowdy

I admit it. I love how easy it is to connect with my kids through our smartphones. In the past week, we’ve used them to find each other in a crowded auditorium, help with dinner plans, and pick up random grocery items and even one another! Cell phones make our lives easier in so many ways. But, along with that convenience comes a lot of responsibility. How do you determine if your child is ready?

According to a survey conducted by National Consumers League, 56 percent of kids aged between 8 and 12 already have a cell phone. That translates to roughly six out of ten parents giving their tween a cell phone, with the 10-11 age range being the sweet spot for that prized first device.

Personally, I was thirty two when I got my first cell phone. Actually, it was through my job and to be used for work purposes only, so technically I didn’t get my own phone for another year or so. My daughters got cell phones when they were 11 and 13 respectively. My thinking was that they were walking to and from (separate) schools and becoming more independent, so it gave me peace of mind to know that they could reach me in an emergency. Was there pressure on me to cave and give them phones? You bet. Was that part of the equation? Though I hate to admit it, yep!

Like most parenting strategies, the decision isn’t one size fits all. It’s difficult to assign a specific age and depends more on a child’s individual level of responsibility and maturity. Lori Evans, MD, director of training in psychology at the NYU Child Study Center says, “Look for the developmental signs. Does your child lose his belongings? Is he generally a responsible kid? Can you trust him? Will he understand how to use the phone safely? The rate at which kids mature varies -- it will even be different among siblings.”

Follow these guidelines to help you with your decision:

  1. Buy the most basic phone available from your provider. If the purpose of the phone really is for your child to be able to reach you in an emergency, he doesn’t need the entire Internet in the palm of his hands.

  2. Consider a pre-paid or pay-as-you-go plan. Think of this first phone as “training wheels” for your child. As he demonstrates responsibility in using his phone, he can eventually earn the privilege of a plan or a phone with additional features.

  3. Does your child demonstrate an understanding of other limits you’ve set, such as restricting TV time or playing video games? If the answer is yes, then the time may be right. If the answer is no, you may want to reconsider or at least put the decision on hold.

  4. Set clear boundaries about usage, including who he can call and when the phone needs to be turned off. Starting out with healthy boundaries will establish smarter usage as he gets a phone with more features and a more versatile plan.

  5. Set a good example by setting your own personal boundaries. For example, we have a “no phones at the table” rule at our house. If you want your child to develop responsible cell phone habits, demonstrate them yourself. Be willing to put your phone down at mealtimes and during conversations, and don’t obsessively check your messages.

  6. Never text and drive. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that, but I will anyway. Your teen may never admit it, but you are still a powerful influence when it comes to acceptable behavior.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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