a peek inside the fishbowl

21 Sep, 2017

When should you give your kids their first smart phone? (Part 1)

Posted by andrea tomkins in: parenting|Yaktivism

“When you eat an orange, eat an orange.”

I don’t know who originally said this. Some sources attribute it to an unnamed Zen master, others, to Vietnamese Buddhist monk and religious leader, Thich Nhat Hanh. Regardless who said it, this philosophy is one I try to live by and instill in our kids. It reminds me to live in the moment and to focus on the task at hand. If I focus on peeling, chewing, truly spending time with that orange, I enjoy that orange much more, and my busy brain has a chance to regroup. Eating an orange can be a contemplative act (a mini-meditation, in a way!), or a rush job over the sink while I’m checking my email for the 100th time that day. And where’s the joy in that? Sometimes I eat that last slice of orange (or let’s be real, the last chip in the bowl) without even realizing I did it.

I always loved going back to school, so it was pretty exciting when it came time to stock up on new binders, pens and pencils, and stacks of clean white papers. This excitement has carried over to my adult years. I still feel a little thrill when buying office supplies, and I enjoy taking my daughters – who are now in high school and university – to buy new supplies for school as well. Of course, it’s different now than when I was a kid. Marketers have done a remarkable job of convincing parents that kids need all kinds of new gear to be successful students. Much of it is technology – laptops, tablets, e-readers smartphones – and there is a surge of sales of these items this time of year.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think kids in elementary school need a smartphone. And it’s very likely that he or she is too young for it.

Our eldest daughter received her phone when she started high school. She’s 18 now. Awhile back I asked her at what age kids should get their first phone. Her answer might surprise you: high school.

I should point out that she’s been spending the last five or six summers working with school-age kids as a camp counselor and has firsthand experience. She’s met kids who can’t focus, don’t know how to play, or get along with others. We can’t blame technology for all of this, of course, but I do believe it is a contributing factor. At the very least, smartphones, computer games, and apps do not cultivate patience or teach kids how to get along face-to-face.

My daughter thinks kids should get really good at being kids first, because learning how to play and get along with others is a critical skill that needs practice. She doesn’t believe younger kids are ready for the responsibility of having a smartphone. And it’s not just about losing or breaking it, but knowing how to use it in a healthy way. Because health is ultimately at the core of the “When should I buy my kids a smartphone” question, and I’m not just referring to mental health, but physical health as well.

Parents want to raise the healthiest kids possible. This is not even up for debate. We make sure our kids eat a balanced diet (no matter how many arguments we have about it!), get fresh air and exercise, wear sunscreen and learn to swim. So what if someone told you that smartphones could cause more harm than good? What if someone told you that these kinds of devices lead to brain damage, a brain rewiring that affects everything from a person’s ability to study to their ability to have good relationships and hold down a job. Would that change your opinion of smartphones? Would you still rush out to buy one for your kid?

I say this now because I feel like my own brain is scrambled, and I’ve only had a smartphone for the past five years or so!

The Canadian Pediatric Society has stated that too much screen time is harmful to “aspects of cognitive and psychosocial development” and in 2012 they published the following guidelines for children and adolescents:

  • Children under two: no screen time is recommended.
  • Children 2-4: less than one hour screen time a day.
  • Children 5-11 and youth 12-17: no more than two hours a day.

One also has to wonder, if the kids are on their phones, what are they not doing? They are probably not playing a game of pick-up hockey or dress up, doing puzzles or building a fort in the backyard. Encouraging a healthy life balance and cultivating good tech hygiene has to start early. What do you think?

Edited to add: Part two of this post is now right here.

7 Responses to "When should you give your kids their first smart phone? (Part 1)"

1 | Molly

September 21st, 2017 at 11:13 pm


This is timely for us – in fact, we were just talking about when the kids *need* a phone. We figured high school, too. I agree that more screen time
Means less face-to-face and social interaction with other kids – but what if my kid is the only one without a phone. Which kinda seems to be the case more and more. Do we stay strong and not give in? Does this leave my kid the odd one out? And does that matter? I know teens text more than call on the phone or email – if all my kid’s friends communicate this way, does this leave my smartphone-less kid in the dust? It is a lot to consider!

2 | maryatparenthood

September 23rd, 2017 at 7:54 am


You don’t need a smart phone to have text, but our line is that our kids may have a phone when they can pay for it. Many parents say their kids “need” one when they take public transit etc but I took public transit as a kid without a cellphone & statistically life is safer now. Having a phone doesn’t make you “safer”, it makes you more likely to be distracted and not paying attention. It makes you more likely to be living online instead of engaging in person. It might even make you a target for theft.

If my kids aren’t able to figure out how to contact me in an emergency without a personal phone, then they aren’t ready to be without supervision. (After all, batteries die, phones break, things happen!)

If it’s for “monitoring” that the kid is where they said they were (and I know a disturbing number of parents who do this), that’s more for the parent than the kid, and I think that’s a rather unattractive form of Helicoptering. High school should be a time of granting gradually increasing amount of independence in preparation for a successful departure from the family home. I won’t be able (hopefully!) to monitor my young adult children’s whereabouts at every instant and I have no desire to get used to doing so for teens. I’d rather be able to trust that they aren’t abusing the level of freedom they are getting. And there ARE other ways to check up on one’s kids…

The argument that this is how all friends communicate is more compelling to me, but there is a real life analogue! I have friends who only communicate by Facebook, and I have other mutual friends who refuse to be on Facebook. Yes, sometimes the friends not on Facebook miss out on things, but if they are real friends with those who only use FB it’s been my observation that there is an effort to connect another way if it’s actually important and not just cat photos. None of my friends who refuse to use FB are social pariahs as a result. Some might think they are quirky or even overly paranoid, but fully functioning humans are capable of communicating with those we value offline.

My husband says” what kind of friends do we want to encourage our kids to have?” The kind that are so superficial that if they don’t have a phone they can’t be friends? Or the kind that value your kid enough to include them anyway?

My 0.02 :)

3 | TD

September 22nd, 2017 at 8:27 am


For us it was when the kids started riding OC Transpo to school on their own. This meant grade 7 as that was when the school board gave them presto passes.

They have hand me down phones with Pay as you go plans that allow unlimited texting, and minimal calling.

Still have not provided data to my high schooler. If she wants it she can pay for it :-)

As the previous commenter mentioned, most kids seem to communicate by texting or messaging apps these days.

4 | andrea tomkins

September 22nd, 2017 at 8:29 am


It’s REALLY tough. And I definitely want to address the peer pressure aspect too. That being said, i do recall a study done by MediaSmarts that reported that the number of elementary school age kids with phones in Canada is not as high as we think it is. So if your kid is saying EVERYONE has a phone in their class, it’s not true. :)

Food for thought from the Canadian Paediatric Society on this topic right here: http://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/screen-time-and-young-children

5 | Tudor

September 22nd, 2017 at 10:39 am


My most recent blog post is about this – http://tudorrobins.ca/2017/09/technology-issues/ – it was prompted by my fifteen-year-old, who is now in grade 10, and still doesn’t have a smartphone. He got great marks in grade 9, and loves going to high school so I would disagree that a smartphone is a *need* even in high school.

Of course, I still use my cell phone only for calls and texting (no email / data) and I work on a $100 / yr pre-paid plan, so I guess he’s coming from a no-phone biased household :)

6 | a peek inside the fishbowl » Blog Archive Supporting women's health in Ottawa (*sponsored) - a peek inside the fishbowl

September 22nd, 2017 at 3:05 pm


[…] need a bit of time to think about some of the issues I brought up in the first part of my post about kids and smartphones. Can you tell I’ve hit a bit of a breaking point? Sigh. In the meantime, I wanted share with […]

7 | a peek inside the fishbowl » Blog Archive When should you give your kids their first smart phone? (Part 2) - a peek inside the fishbowl

September 26th, 2017 at 1:16 pm


[…] teenage daughter, not angrily, just as a reminder. (If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, read the first part of this post.) She is barreling down the stairs while reading something on her phone. It’s most likely a […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (24) and Sarah (22). During the day I work as a writer at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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