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I Gave My Kid One and Regret It: But, When Should Kids Get A Phone?

when should kids get a phoneWe bought our newly minted 6th grader a used iPhone because I was worried. We worked full time and she would be walking home after school by herself — I wanted to know she was okay. She was positively gleeful about having (what appeared to be) what everyone else had. She could text, send silly emojis, stay in the know, and not feel left out. My daughter was happy and she was safe. I was happy, too. For a little while.

But, she quickly became glued, very connected to all that was going on, and anxious.  

I’ve taught kids in K – 8 for 20 years and I’ve witnessed the increasing anxiety in all kids. The stats don’t lie. The National Institute of Health says that nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. These numbers are rising. In the past several years, anxiety disorders in children and teens went up by a startling 20%. With that information, my answer to “when should kids get a phone?” is changing. 

My personal and professional opinion is that this widespread anxiety is caused by our kids being so connected to social media. Giving your kid a phone means potentially giving them access to that 24/7.

Our kids’ brains are still developing and growing. So, giving your kid a phone hits their growing brain with dopamine every time they get a ‘like’ or a text. The brain momentarily feels good, but soon, it needs more to even feel okay. They then compare their world against what they see others doing, having, and getting. Lastly, they are on the pulse of our world (news) not feeling safe.

There’s no break or balance from this toxic loop. They’re happy with activity on the phone yet they’re drowning in  the comparison game and access to negative information. No longer are our kids cocooned in a bubble.

So, when should kids get a phone? That’s up to you. But let me offer you what I’ve learned along the way. 

Whatever you decide about giving your kid a phone, check out these tips and resources:

  1. Don’t know when to give your kid a phone? How about wait until 8th:

    HERE is a movement (with many additional resources) that is empowering parents to delay getting their child a phone until they are in 8th grade. Top Silicon Valley executives have even delayed the smartphone is their homes. Join others, take the pledge and share it (ironically) on your social media to grow this! If you’re hearing about great Black Friday deals on phones coming up and are still not convinced, this article that was just published shows research that links screen time to lower brain development, emerging literacy skills, and expressive language.  

  2. Have a Known Password:

    If you end up giving your kid a phone, buy it so that it is ‘yours’ with the agreement. Therefore you own it so you always need to know the password…end of story. 

  3. Help Them to Have Limits: 

    With all that dopamine hitting, it’s a Herculean ask to think they are going to self-impose balance. Plus, admit it: it’s hard for us to be away from our phones. They are addictive. Hold strong on limits, because once you back off, it’s harder to reign things in.

  4. Breaks at Night:

    Make some house rules. A good one to consider when giving your kid a phone is insisting that it must be plugged in every evening where you have access to it (away from their bedroom) by a certain time. Many times I had elementary school students that were half asleep in school because they (sheepishly) admitted to me that they were secretly on the phone playing games all night.  

  5. Make a Contract:

    To be able to use the phone you are providing, your child must agree to your terms and use THESE terrific contracts developed by Josh Shipp. The work is done for you! And remember to revisit this agreement as your child grows older because the intensity up-levels to possibilities of driving and texting or knowing what to do if asked for photos.

  6. Model Great Etiquette:

    Are you on your phone all the time? Even if you need to be, can you make that less visible to your kids? They learn from you and emulate you. If you’re having a conversation, is your phone on the table or are you fully present? Have it be your family’s rule to put away your phones when together. The answer to “when to give your kid a phone?” may hinge on how you’re handling the device in your own life. 

  7. Delve into Real Life:

    Look for the Seacoast’s Annual Digital Fast. Local legend Jeff Stern realized he was addicted to his phone and thought it would be valuable to take a break and knew it would be more fun if he got others to do it with him. The event has grown to include the Portsmouth schools, kick-off parties, free meditations, organized pick-up games, and family-friendly crafting, art, music, and gaming activities at local Seacoast businesses.

  8. Parental Controls:

    If you choose an iPhone, know that there are already apps on there that can help you! Check out THIS link to see how the Screen Time feature can let you know: how much your child is on the device, when they use it, and what apps they frequent. 

  9. Keep the Conversation Going:

    The apps may change but the dangers won’t. Make sure they understand the risks and how to navigate the world of social media (and challenging apps like Snapchat or Tik Tok) in a responsible and safe way by always withholding personal information. And stay up on the safety measures by checking in with THIS organization.

  10. Loss of trust = Loss of Privilege:

    Should your child mess up (and they are kids after all) follow through on them losing the access for what you think is appropriate. They need to take the rules seriously and respect that having a phone is not a right. 

Hold the Phone

This past year our family took a week-long trip on a Disney cruise. Pro tip: cell phones don’t work when you are out at sea!  I assumed teens would be too cool for cruises and kept trying to understand why my daughter loved it so much. She spoke about the freedom, the ease in which she made friends and the surprising thing that left me speechless: the lack of anxiety because her phone simply would not work for a week. Those were her words!  She just enjoyed real people and real life. Kids and phones don’t have to always go together. 

Kids and phones - my button from the Seacoast Digital Fast

My awesome button from the Seacoast Digital Fast.

My best advice? Learn from my mistake. Find a different way to know your kids are safe and hold off on the phone, at least until 8th grade. Urge them to get out and work on their naturally occurring in-real-life social skills with other kids rather than hiding behind the phone…and no, they aren’t the only ones without a phone! Talk to other moms and you’ll see that you’re not the only one concerned about giving your kid a phone too early. So many of us are asking “when should kids get a phone?” The answer doesn’t have to be earlier than you (or they) are ready. Plus, if we band together, we can change the statistics.

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