Chances are if you're a parent you've had a child beg you for a mobile phone. But when is the right time to give your offspring their own device? Psychologist and owner of Digital Nutrition, Jocelyn Brewer, answers your biggest concerns.
Is there a magic number when it comes to the age your child should have their first mobile phone?
Not exactly. The range of developmental levels and the various skills and strengths means some kids might be ready for the responsibility of a smartphone (or at least some features of it) earlier than others. It also really depends on what they want to use the smartphone for, and why they need their own device for these activities. I'm not convinced primary school kids need their own device. Probably by year eight or nine they have more utility and responsibility for it.
Generally, kids are itching to get onto social media and have their own accounts, the minimum age for this is 13. This relates to the developmental skills requires to understand risk and relationships, however, there need to be different levels of social media functions that open up as kids get older. Like P-plates and a learner driver system. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation have an amazing safety licence I highly recommend.
The start of high school or a 13th birthday seems to be a general rule of thumb for many parents when it comes to a child's first smartphone. Do you agree with that assessment?
I think we need to consider things like the cost of the devices, the sense of needing to "keep up with the iPhoneses" and the huge environmental impact of the throwaway tech world we live in. It might be useful for a new phone to be linked to a particular achievement or goal but also it's important not to make it an extensive motivator for them to do anything in their daily life. Being able to meet expectations and respect the family's tech use guidelines might be a good reason to get the next level phone.
A significant birthday like 13 can sometimes be used as a marker for this, but I think that is about as arbitrary as a new years resolution is! Turning 13 doesn’t magically give your child the social and emotional skills need to be ‘safe’ or savvy online.
I’ve got the “everybody else at school has one” spiel. What advice do you have for how I come back to this?
This comes down to a discussion about values and what is important in your family and why. It requires families to be strong in their convictions and consistent in their rules and guidelines in a firm but fair - and authoritative - way.
For parents who are separated, giving their child their own mobile phone so they can call them directly is an important concern. What is your take on this?
Parents still need to have control or involvement in the use of the phone and for all the other things that the phone can do I'm not sure this is a great reason for a kid in primary school to have a phone. Perhaps for kids in high school where you are likely to need to arrange independent pick up or communicate changes to plans, this might be a useful thing – but again I doubt that a phone is only used for this and it’s the other activities and risks that need to be considered.
My child loses things easily – I’m worried it will be the same if I buy them an expensive phone. What advice do you have?
If your child is not able to take responsibility for their belongings this might be a sign they’re not ready for their own phone. Build skills around not losing their belongings and then consider the phone. Getting a phone if you can not lose an important item (like school jumpers or equipment) for a period of time might be a good motivator to then get the ‘reward’ of a phone? Depends on the kid.
I’m ready to give my child their first smartphone but I’m worried about online bullying/the apps they may come across. What advice do you give parents about setting up smartphones?
Young people need to develop a range of digital literacy and social-emotional skills to deal with the issues that arise in the online world. If they haven’t built these skills or had opportunities to learn to navigate the issues that arise online then I would hold off getting your own phone (or at least getting access to the apps and sites that you're concerned about). Again, I think all kids should get an online licence like the one offered here.
I'm worried about texting and the potential for bullying. Any advice?
Upskill both yourself and your kids. There's no point worrying unless you've taken active steps to provide the skills required to deal with the responsibility of digital interactions. There are fantastic resources here for you to get started on. Parents really need to make time to understand the issues without freaking out and skills to navigate these. Bullying remains a primarily an offline issue (yes, augmented by the online world, but just as ‘worrying’ IRL) so if you're worried about this online there’s a range of resources and skills to access to help prepare and prevent the issues spiralling.
How can I make sure my child doesn’t burn a hole in my credit card with their mobile phone usage?
Have a set plan, don’t allow them to use the iTunes or Google Play stores without permission (this is all in the settings) and negotiate a monthly budget for spending on in-app purchases. Kids need to develop skills in digital financial literacy and understand that money is not something that you magically tap and wave in the air.
What rules or conversations would you suggest parents have with their child when they do decide to take the plunge and buy them a mobile phone?
This is a very important conversation and one that needs to be carefully thought about. I recommend Janell Burley-Hoffman’s book iRules and her website which details setting guidelines for kids tech use and also for parents – as this is an important aspect of role-modelling and expectation setting for your own family.
We hear so much about the dangers of kids being on mobile phones. But what are the benefits of a child having one?
Again, it's not the device per se, but the activities they engage in with the device. We get confused between the two. Many of these questions don’t relate to the device – which I suggest you think about like a syringe, but the activities engaged in which is the difference between insulin, vaccination or illicit drugs – the content is key.
Benefits are diverse. Most research - despite the moral panic and cherrypicked research findings - shows that moderate social media use is actually beneficial for teens as its helpful in feeling socially connected and part of a collective.