Screen-Time Balance

When should my teenager get a phone?

It’s a question that has plagued parents since the first iPhone hit the market in 2007: How young is too young to get a smartphone?

How young is too young to get a smartphone?

It’s a question that has plagued parents for about a decade and a half, ever since the first iPhone hit the market in 2007.The question of when kids should get a cellphone had been an issue for a while, but everything changed when phones became tiny, limitless computers with internet access.

Parents and tweens usually don’t see eye to eye when it comes to how much screen time is allowed and when they should be allowed to have different electronic devices. And in reality, the full scope of what’s happening is simply not clear to a child in the middle of it…and sometimes, not even to us as parents. Technology simply develops faster than we can evaluate its impacts, especially long term consequences.

So how young IS too young to get a smartphone?

Simply put: There’s no universal age experts agree is right for a child to get a smartphone.

But don’t stop reading yet. We’re not saying, “Well, that’s all. Be on your way! Good luck figuring it out on your own!”

What we are saying is… it’s complicated. The experts do know a lot about how smartphone use affects kids, and there are some guidelines to keep in mind But ultimately, the decision of when your child gets a smartphone is going to come down to a multitude of factors like maturity, how well they’ve done with technology in the past, and how much they may need it based on your family’s circumstances.

Assessing Your Child’s Readiness

As a parent, you basically have the final say on what will be best for your child in terms of phone ownership If you’re on the fence, here are a few things to consider trying:

1. Put yourself in your child’s shoes.

Whatever you end up deciding, it can be helpful to let your child have a voice in the process. Really try to hear your child’s concerns and empathize with them. Imagine how hard it might sometimes be for a teen when everyone else seems to have social media or smartphones, EXCEPT you?  Whether we like it or not, quotable videos and memes are a huge fixture of how teenagers joke around and relate to each other. And social media platforms are often where they make plans for real-life activities. Missing out on all the inside jokes and online conversations could become a real detriment in a teen’s social life and emotional wellbeing. It’s also almost inevitable that screens will eventually be a big part of their world.

Of course, putting yourself in their shoes goes both ways… While you’re in that empathetic headspace, remember being a teenager, dealing with the awkwardness of puberty, navigating friendships, and finding your place in the world—and on top of that recipe, pile on a constant flow of unrealistic social media comparisons, a few dangerous cups of age-inappropriate content, a couple of toxic tablespoons of online predators, and a pinch of the potential cyberbullying situations that come with owning a smartphone. Many young teenagers just aren’t ready for those kinds of added pressures, especially if they already struggle with social skills or with their self esteem.

2. Take a close look at their past relationship with screen time.

One good barometer to consider before granting your children smartphone privileges  is the quality of relationship with the technology and screens they are already using.. Before age 12, your child will likely have been exposed to computers and tablets, entertainment streaming sites, and perhaps video game consoles. Have they misused tech up to this point? Do they constantly ask for it? Do they always feel drawn to it when they have nothing to do? Are they playing with or watching the device even when they aren’t supposed to? 

If your answer is “yes” to most of these questions, then those might be some indicators that they’re not ready for more screen responsibility—no matter how much they want it or say they’re ready--or even when all of their friends have it. 

3. Factor in other ways technology affects them.

The math checks out: a lot of screen time means less time spent in face to face interactions and moving. Giving your child a powerful computer that sits in their pocket is almost inevitably going to increase that sedentary screen time.

You might also consider, how is your child’s current levels of screen time impacting their family and friend relationships? How about their overall physical health and activity levels? What effect is it having on their ability to regulate their emotions?

What to Do if You Think Your Child’s Ready

If you feel comfortable giving the green light even with those cautions in mind, then your child might be ready for their own phone But be sure to set up some solid ground rules right from the get go. For example, establishing “no-phone-zones” and “no-phone-times.”

You may also want to clearly set an expectation that you as the parent will regularly check their phone to see what apps they have downloaded. We recommend doing a regular audit of younger teens’ phones and checking out our app guide. For a first cell phone, some parent experts recommend that the parent buys the phone and has a conversation explaining that ultimate ownership of the phone belongs to the parent. That way, clear expectations are in place, and teens are less likely to see it as a violation of privacy. 

What to Do if You Think Your Child Isn’t Ready

Instead of caving, it can be helpful to personally acknowledge with your child the real pressures and influences you’re both feeling with this decision. Especially with younger tweens, you might start with what child psychologists refer to as holding up the “emotional mirror” and simply but sincerely reflecting the passion behind the desperate request. This is also called “granting in fantasy what can’t be granted in reality.” A parent might respond by saying something like: “I can see you really want this! That must be frustrating for you when you see others in your class have a cellphone. I can see this really means a lot to you. I know you really want one. Tell me more about what’s happening at school with smartphones.”

Then listen intently to your child and validate their feelings behind their desire, instead of arguing with their points and opinions. Depending on your own family rules and values, perhaps there’s a compromise. Maybe you could explore cell phones that have limits and restrictions. While helping your child feel more “normal” amidst friends with phones, you can ensure limits that are appropriate. That means your child can get what they want, in ways you feel good about as a parent.

To learn more about balancing screen time with your kids, check out the Raise App.

Photo by Dmitriy Tyukov on Unsplash

Next article

Get parenting insights direct to your inbox.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Download the Raise app for free