a peek inside the fishbowl

26 Sep, 2017

When should you give your kids their first smart phone? (Part 2)

Posted by andrea tomkins in: parenting

“WHEN YOU EAT AN ORANGE, EAT AN ORANGE!” I shout this to my 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 Snapchat from a friend. She knows exactly what I’m talking about, so she slides her phone in her pocket for now.

Honestly, there is no limit to number of situations the “orange” rule can be applied. We shouldn’t need to remind our kids not to use the phone while they’re crossing the street, but we have to. Tweens and teens think they’re invincible, it’s just part of the natural teen brain: Oh mom! Nothing’s gonna happen! I always watch for traffic! Which may be true, until a poorly timed message from a friend trumps all sense and reason. Sigh.

Cultivating patience, and learning to put the device away has to start at an early age. I don’t want my kid driving and texts because they can’t resist the siren song of that text notification sound. Do you?

So, to answer the original question I posed in the first part of this post: When should you do you give your kids their first smart phone? If we want healthy kids, with a healthy sense of self, there are a few questions you may want to discuss with your partner first, even before bringing the kids into the conversation.

  1. 1) Do they really need it. I mean, really really need it? This is highly subjective, of course. Kids will insist they need a phone, of course, for walking to school. I never bought into this argument, because when I was a kid I managed to get to school just fine without one.
  2. 2) Is the child mature enough for a phone? Some kids are more mature than others. This is why it’s tricky to make a precise recommendation in regards to an exact age. Only you know your child. Ask yourself if your child is the type that loses backpacks and water bottles. Will they adhere to limits you set out? Are they responsible in other areas of their lives? For example, showing up when they say they would or walking the dog when they promised to do so.
  3. 3) How do we address the “EVERYONE HAS A PHONE” argument? The real answer is not everyone has a phone. According to a recent MediaSmarts report: only one-quarter of students in Grade 4, half of students in Grade 7, and 85% of students in Grade 11, own a cell phone.
  4. 4) Who’s paying for the initial phone and the data plan? A few regular babysitting gigs might be enough to cover it and provide some added incentive to find a job or do extra chores. Not working? No phone.

It’s worth noting that social media sites such as Facebook and Snapchat have age restrictions. According to their Terms of Service, it’s 13 for both of these. Personally, I wouldn’t give a child under 13 a smartphone because (a) their brains are still growing and changing and (b) I don’t think most kids that are mature enough to handle the responsibility. Also, see my earlier point about brain damage. Consider carefully, how one’s inability to focus can have an impact on their lives.

If your child is under 13 and is begging for a phone, how about using this as a suggested script:

“I hear you. You want a smartphone. Here’s the thing, it’s a big responsibility to have your own phone and it is very expensive. I need to know you’re ready. How about you start with doing your chores [insert whatever job here] and starting to save your money? We can talk about this again later.”

Also, ask them WHY they want a phone! The answer might surprise you. Is it to take photos? Communicate with friends? Play games? Perhaps there are other (non-phone) ways these things can be done.

You’ve decided that buying a phone is a good idea. Here are some additional considerations as you navigate the choppy waters of smart phone ownership.

Lay down some ground rules

If you don’t establish some rules at the outset, it will be very difficult to introduce them later on.

Awhile back I wrote a post called What’s the best age to give a kid an iPod touch? I still stand by what I wrote there, especially about establishing clear rules regarding usage.

Some ideas that will help limit usage in your house:

  • Muting the devices and keeping them completely out of sight during family meals.
  • Keeping study time and study areas distraction-free.
  • Leaving them downstairs, on the charger at night. In other words, not letting your kids have their phones in their bedrooms at night. Kids using their phones at night – and the resulting sleep impairment – is one of the biggest issues in modern families. Buy them an alarm clock instead. We start the “putting away” process about an hour before bedtime. In our house, the rule is that they phones are put away at 9:00 p.m. Admittedly, it doesn’t always happen, but it’s a good place to start.

With tablets, some parents set usage hours. So for example, Saturdays only, or between 5-6 p.m on weekdays if homework is done. I find this tougher to do with phones because tweens and teens use them primarily as a communications device. I would have hated it if my mom only let me use our home phone for an hour a day to talk to my friends, wouldn’t you?

Double down on those school technology contracts

During the first week of school we are always walloped with a thick bundle of handouts and permission slips. It’s overwhelming, especially after a summer break, to unfold the wrinkled pack of papers from the bottom of a backpack and go through everything, umpteen signatures and school fees and what the heck, we need a second pair of indoors shoes now!? One of these sheets is inevitably a list of school board rules governing technology and media use. Take it seriously. Respecting the rules, especially in the classroom, is paramount. Read it out loud as a family. It’s usually written in a formal language that isn’t very clear, so go over it and make sure the kids truly understand the rules as well as the consequences. Have them say it back to you in their own words. Also, offering up real-life scenarios and asking them if they know of kids who’ve broken the rules is a great way of getting a conversation going.

Be a good role model

There are family rules, and then there are guidelines for healthy use. Practice the “orange” rule yourself. And put that device away! Sometimes it’s just about good manners. For example, if someone is speaking to you, put down your phone, face down, and don’t check it again until the conversation is over.

Have regular chats about the use of technology, but don’t make it preachy.

Use real life scenarios to talk about the issues. Ask your kid: what would you do if you knew someone was being bullied online? If you met someone online who asked for your home address? Saw that your friend was posting sexy selfies on her public Instagram account? The answers might be revealing, but you might find yourself learning something too. Some issues worth talking about together include privacy, bullying, body image, and internet safety.

So to go back to my original question… when is a good time to buy a kid a smart phone? I’d say hold off as long as you possibly can.

What about you?

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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 daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). 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, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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