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Navigating the Digital Frontier: A Comprehensive Guide for Parents on Introducing Smartphones to Tweens and Teens

Having technology introduced on the younger side can be beneficial as tweens are often more responsive to parental advice than teenagers may be, however the trade off is that they may encounter content they are not ready for at a younger age. 

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The holidays are upon us, prompting many parents of tweens and teens to ponder whether this is the year to get their child a phone. As a clinical psychologist, I'm frequently asked about the "right" age for a child to receive their first phone.


A recent study of 1000 Americans found that the vast majority of respondents reported thinking that children should wait until 12 or 13 years old before getting a phone, while another showed that by the time they turn 12, nearly seventy percent of children already have a smartphone. This is not necessarily an inconsistency however, as each child’s maturity, responsibility, and their communication with parents regarding digital use are much more important factors than age alone. Overall, most experts agree that between 10-14 years old is a reasonable time to get them their first phone. 


For most children, having technology introduced on the younger side can be beneficial as tweens are often more responsive to parental advice than teenagers may be, however the trade off is that they may encounter content they are not ready for at a younger age. Ultimately, the appropriate timing is about more than setting an arbitrary age - the decision is best based on a few key considerations that reflect your values as a parent, your child’s readiness, and your family's personal circumstances.


Below is a helpful guideline for families making this decision for the first time 

Parental Role Modeling: Shaping Digital Behavior

The role of parental modeling in device use is worth specific mention. It should come as no surprise to parents that their children watch them and mimic their behavior. Specifically, a recent study by Hefner, Knop, Schmitt & Vorderer, of parents and their 8-14 year old children demonstrated a correlation between parental problematic phone use, and problematic phone use in their children. By introducing conversations regarding digital use early and modeling healthy phone use ourselves, parents can support their children in developing digital responsibility before they ever receive their first device. Make sure that you are using your devices in the same way you hope your child does. If you look at your phone during dinner, while watching a movie, or (God forbid) text while you drive, know that your child is likely to do so as well. If you would like them to put their phone away at certain times, or respond to difficult online situations in a certain way, make sure they see you doing the same.

Assessing Readiness: Who Is Your Child?

There are many questions parents might want to answer about their child's strengths and weaknesses before getting them a phone of their own. A non-exhaustive list is below:

  • Does your child show a sense of maturity and responsibility at home and school? 

  • Do they generally follow the rules and boundaries regarding limits? 

  • Do you trust them to come to you if they have problems? 

  • Are they able to generally handle conflicts and accept consequences for their actions? 


Furthermore, it can be helpful for parents to consider how their child currently handles any technology they have access to. For example, do they respect time limits on video games or tablet use?

Family Needs: Balancing Safety and Independence

Additionally of course, it is imperative to consider your own family’s needs. It may be important for your child to have a phone for safety reasons if your child uses public transportation, is home alone often, or is away from their parents regularly for different activities or a job such as babysitting. It can also be a tool that reduces anxiety for parents - the peace of mind many parents experience in knowing they can see their child’s location and contact them if necessary can not be overstated.

Choosing the Right Device: Setting Digital Boundaries

An important thing to remember is that there are many options available that can be helpful in supporting children’s digital responsibility. Many parents choose to give their children a smartwatch or feature phone before giving them access to a full smartphone. There are a wide variety of feature phones available that offer a range of accessibility, from simple talk and text, to phones that include a limited amount of apps or games. Alternatively, if choosing to give your child a full-feature smartphone, make sure it is set up with limited apps or parental controls that are consistent with the access you feel comfortable with your child having (be aware that children tend to have a penchant for getting around parental controls!). Having first devices with reasonable limitations can help youth ease into digital use, building knowledge and responsibility before having full access to the digital world. 

What If They're Not Ready Yet? Patience as a Virtue

If, upon careful consideration, it becomes evident that your child is not yet ready for a smartphone, it's crucial to embrace this decision as a positive and responsible choice. Each child matures at their own pace, and delaying the introduction of a phone reflects a commitment to their individual needs and developmental timeline. This decision allows you to maintain a hands-on role in guiding their digital journey, emphasizing real-world experiences and interpersonal skills. Use this time to reinforce the value of face-to-face interactions, outdoor activities, and creative pursuits, while fostering the. Continue modeling responsible digital behavior and fostering open communication about responsible technology use, digital etiquette, and online safety. By patiently waiting until your child demonstrates the maturity and responsibility necessary for navigating the digital landscape, you empower them to make informed decisions when the time is right, setting the stage for a healthy relationship with technology in the future.

Ongoing Communication: Navigating the Digital Landscape Together

Communication with your child regarding digital use should be an ongoing series of conversations, beginning before children receive their first device and continuing through highschool. Be clear with expectations regarding screen time- do you have screen-free times, or screen-free zones in your family? Do you want your child to put their phone away before bedtime? Under what circumstances might you take your child’s phone from them, and for how long? If your child is getting online access, speak with them about online etiquette, how to keep information private, and how to identify scams. If your child is getting access to social media, make sure to discuss reality vs. appearance, how to respond to cyberbullying, and the responsibility of sharing comments, photos or videos online.

Post-Purchase Guidance: Beyond the First Phone

 Once your child has had their phone for some time, continue checking in! Once children reach the age of 15-16, most teens expect privacy regarding their phone use. Asking them open-ended questions such as “What are your favorite apps?” or “How do you feel when you are away from your phone?” can help to facilitate conversation and keep parents in the loop. Showing interest and asking questions can put parents in a place where they can be resources for their children long-term as they learn to navigate the challenges of digital life.

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