At what age it is appropriate to give children cell phones? I anticipate that this will be a debate for a long time to come. I had a conversation recently with a parent who was conflicted about getting her daughter a cell phone as this almost teenage young girl was supposedly “the only one” of her peers who didn’t have one, and this mom was determined to stand firm on not caving in. It’s a long time since I struggled with this decision, and I did, a lot.
Perhaps I’ve mellowed in my older age, but the hard-line I took all those years ago seems to have softened considerably. Granted things have also changed in the past 15 years, and cell phones have become an even more urgent requirement for children. My child waited, not at all patiently, to reach the age that had been set as “appropriate” to own a cell phone. After much consideration, that age had been determined by leaving primary school and all the uncertainty of a new beginning. Whether she was the only child in her grade that didn’t have a cell phone or not in primary school is unconfirmed, but now when I think about what that reality may look like, I’m not sure my choices would be the same.
The truth is that no matter what boundaries and rules you set in place for cell phone use, it’s about the parenting that is done beforehand that counts. It’s necessary to already have built the relationship with your children where communication is free-flowing and open, and where your rules are respected. As parents, we are often governed by fear, and our fear around cell phone use is real. However, apart from the radiation of cell phones, the rise in addiction to devices, the access to inappropriate content and the terrifying risks of social media, there are also real benefits of cell phones for children. Some of these are also benefits for parents too.
While I have taken a long time to appreciate the change in how young people socialise, it is true that a big part of their social identity is on and through their phones. Friendships amongst our children are far more difficult and complicated than they ever were, and if your child is not part of the group chats they are simply excluded. Excluded from the news, the group jokes, the unpacking of the school day, and most critically, the social arrangements. For older tweens and early teens, not having a cell phone is social isolation.
But all is not lost for parents either, by giving your child a cell phone, with strict rules of use, they are always contactable, you always know where they are, and they have access to services that make your life simpler in an emergency. It’s all about setting the rules from the start. Rules that ensure that no cell phones are in bedrooms at night, phones are charged in predetermined central docking spots in your home. Have the conversations about what is shared digitally, and ensure your children know that once it is shared, it can never be taken back. Teach them to be kind in what they post; teach them about pack mentality and bullying; ensure they know that it is never okay to send photos of themselves that they wouldn’t want their parents or teachers to see, and only when you are sure that your child understands your concern for their safety and why, I’d say get them a cell phone.