It’s a rite of passage for parents of tweens: By the time your child is 10 or 12, she decides that she must have a cell phone, because if she can’t text and talk to her friends her social life will be “ruined.” You may be skeptical about that, but the idea has some appeal to you, too: As she begins to become independent, you want to be able to keep in touch with her, especially if she has started traveling alone.
But the prospect of the cell phone comes with a host of concerns:
Given the risks, should kids have cell phones and how do you decide when it’s the right time to take the plunge?
Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist and anxiety expert at the Child Mind Institute, says he is asked this question often by parents with kids between 10 and 12.
“I tell parents that it’s not so much about a particular age as it is about a kid’s social awareness and understanding of what the technology means,” Dr. Bubrick explains. “You could have a really immature 15-year-old who’s acting out on the phone, but you give it to him because he’s 15, whereas a really socially mature 12-year-old could handle it better.”
The constant stimulation available via smartphone makes them especially distracting for kids with ADHD. “We know from behavioral science that we move towards things that we find immensely reinforcing, and move away from things we find aversive,” explains David Anderson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD and behavioral disorders at the Child Mind Institute. “Phones are made to be as reinforcing as possible. If you’re not getting an email, you’re getting a social media update, or you’re checking a news feed, or you’re checking a sports score.”
Children with ADHD find it more difficult to resist the siren call of all that stimulation, and to stay tuned in to activities that are less reinforcing but more important–activities like homework or dinner table conversation.
Cell phones are also especially risky for kids, including those with ADHD, who are prone to act impulsively. Their impulsivity makes them more likely to post or send something they may regret later on, and in a world where everything you create is recorded in cyberspace, they are at risk for making long-lasting mistakes.
If you don’t feel that your child is quite ready to be trusted with a smart phone, one option is to provide him with a phone that allows for calling and texting but not much else. One such device is Sprint’s “WeGo,” a child-friendly phone for 5- to 12-year-olds that features GPS tracking and allows you to program specific incoming and outgoing numbers. It includes a string that can be pulled to set off a panic alarm.
Dr. Anderson, however, reminds parents who take this route that their child will eventually have to learn how to use more capable phones. He warns, “We don’t want to make it so that they’re limited for so long that by the time they get a smartphone or they’re exposed to social media, they have no way of making effective and appropriate decisions around that.”
If you’re ready to take the plunge
For parents who do decide to give their children fully functioning phones, experts recommend setting clear guidelines in a conversation before they receive the device. Here are some sample rules that parents can apply to their kids’ cell phone use:
While you may choose to enforce different rules, make sure they are clear from the very beginning, the experts say, and establish consequences if these guidelines are not followed.
“You’re training your kids to make good decisions over time,” explains Dr. Bubrick, “so that eventually, when they leave you, you can trust that they will make those good decisions on their own.