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Basic Dad: When Should I Get My Kid A Smartphone?

Advice from a child psychologist, a cell phone salesman and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

Right now, I’m lucky: When my three-year-old asks me for a phone, I just pull out the trusty Elmo phone, and she’ll play with that and pretend to call grandma, Cookie Monster, Santa or whoever. I know this is only temporary, though: Someday soon we’ll reach the point where she wants a smartphone because all of her friends have one, or I’ll want to consider giving her one because I’m worried about not being able to reach her.

But when is that?

At first, I figured high school, because that’s when I got a cellphone myself, but the world does seem a lot different now. My wife works in schools, and she says that most kids seem to have them in middle school, and some even earlier, with kids as young as seven using them. That sounds crazy to me, but is it?

Basically: When should I get my kid a smartphone?

The Expert Advice

Glen Chernack, child psychologist: To start with, “How old should my child be when I give him a smartphone?” is the wrong question. I believe that a better discussion is to get rid of this age thing and look at where they’re in their maturity and their social relationships.

I’d be in tune with how well they manage their relationships with friends. Are they stable with a friend, or are they more vulnerable and more sensitive? For example, with my eight-year-old daughter, if someone says anything negative, she can easily misinterpret that as a personal insult. There’s a lot of misperception going on because, at that age, your personality isn’t mature, it’s very much at the whim of social pressures and social psychology.

If I were to add a smartphone into the mix, there would now be more opportunities for misinterpretation because it’s not reciprocal communication. This is something that adults can struggle with when we get texts and emails lacking the right punctuation, but we have the capacity to at least say, “Am I reading too much into that text?” We can do that because we understand the limitations of this form of communication, but even we still can get pissed off or bothered by it, and we’re adults! So to expect your child to understand these intricacies is unfair.

With that in mind, I think the maturity level of a middle schooler is completely counter to them being able to interact digitally. I would lean more toward high school-level maturity. I won’t give an age, but I will say that middle school is the worst level of adolescence for navigating relationships, so I’d think they’re more able to handle things in high school.

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: By age 10, a lot of parents cave and get their kid a smartphone. I caved myself when my kids were in middle school because it was stressful for me when I was late picking them up and I couldn’t get in touch with them. But here’s the thing: Once you start down that road, even if it’s just a flip phone, it just becomes a cycle of “the next thing.” You start down a path that there’s probably no return from, so deciding when you’re going to start down that path is important.

Whenever you decide to, it’s important to communicate the dangers of having a smartphone. There are dangers with self-esteem and narcissism when it comes to social media — these issues are hard enough for teens and social media has made it even harder. Bullying, of course, is another danger. What’s made bullying so much worse is that children can never get away from it now. You used to be able to go home and get away from the school bully, but now, with texting or social media, they can be with them all the time. There’s also inappropriate content, and a child may have trouble understanding that if someone else sends them something, they can get into trouble too, for keeping it on their phone.

You have to trust your kids to some degree, but the problem isn’t even trusting your own child, it’s trusting everyone else they’re communicating with. This is a concept that they might not understand when their reasoning and logic are still developing, which is why you need to keep the dialogue open and not just say “no” to things without explanation. You need to trust your child, yes, but you don’t have to be foolish about it. Trust doesn’t mean that you don’t have access.

Wendi, mother of a 15-year-old: While my daughter did ask for one well before then, we ultimately decided to give her a smartphone at age 12, when she started to stay home alone by herself. We don’t have a home phone so I didn’t feel comfortable with her being there with no way to communicate. I wanted her to be able to text me or call me or call 911 if God forbid something happened.

As a parent, you always have trust issues, wondering whether your child is trustworthy or not. My daughter has always been a mature kid, but when she got the phone, the agreement she and I had was, “Whenever I say, ‘Give me the phone,’ you give me the phone.” That way, she wouldn’t ever have time to delete anything, it was going to be immediate and random.

When parents are thinking about giving their kid a smartphone, I’d definitely say they need to think about how other people can get to your child. Just because they’re a rule follower, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other people out there who could try to abuse them. That’s why, for a long time, I wouldn’t let my daughter download Snapchat or Instagram. Now that she’s 15, it’s kind of hard not to, but she still understands that having a phone at all is a privilege, not a right, and because she gets that and because she hands the phone over when I ask, I’ve never had to take the phone away from her.

Dan, a father and manager at a major wireless carrier: My 10-year-old will be getting a smartphone within the next month or two, because when summer starts, we want to be able to get ahold of him when he’s not home and he’s starting to become more independent. My ex-wife and I came to this agreement because he’s outside by himself a lot more now and he has friends that he’ll go out and play with for a couple of hours at a time. I get nervous sometimes and want to reach him, but trying to rely on someone else’s parents to pick up their phone isn’t ideal, so I’d like to have a direct line to him.

He has a tablet that has parental controls on it right now, so he already understands that when he gets the phone, it’s going to be locked down like Fort Knox. He’s going to have a phone and texting and basic internet, but through our provider we’re using a feature that allows me to see what he’s looking at on wifi and on the 4G LTE network. If he wants to download an app, the App Store has to be password protected, so he’ll need permission for that. We’re also going to do what I’ve seen a lot of parents do that come into my store, and that’s turning off his data during school hours and after his bedtime.

A lot of times, too, providers have a setting where parents can see incoming and outgoing text messages. You can’t read the content, but they can see how many times someone messages them or how many times they get picture messages, which will help monitor usage.

While I was a bit resistant, we decided to go with a smartphone because buying him a basic phone at this point in time would be almost like a social suicide for him — all of his friends have had smartphones for three or four years already. I’ve noticed that he was already being separated from his peers by not being able to take pictures and things like that. He’s been pretty good about it, but it’s still been difficult. I’m trying to be considerate of that while also keeping him safe by monitoring things. Unfortunately, 10 isn’t the 10 it used to be. It’s a socially different world out there now.