By far, the number-one thing parents of teens ask me when they learn what I do for a living is almost always about phones.
It comes in several forms, but all of their questions about phones really boil down to two main questions:
1. When do I give my child a phone, and how do I help them win with it?
2. I’ve given my child their phone and it’s not going well . . . what do I do?
While I can’t offer an answer for every scenario, I’d love to offer a few ideas that might help you think more clearly about your child and their first phone. By the way, I hope to have a much more complete answer for you very soon as I’m working on writing a couple of books on this topic right now. But for now, here you go. Here are four big ideas to help along the way.
1. It’s not “if,” it’s “when.”
I’m often perplexed when people ask me if I think a child should get a phone. I know I might sound like too much of a “fun dad” (Google “Mean Girls” if that doesn’t make sense to you), but I think I’m being “Responsible Dad” when I say that. Here’s a fact. Whether or not you want them to, your child will grow up and make decisions for themselves. And, in this world, I’m 99.999% sure that one of the decisions they’ll make is to have a phone.
So, here’s my answer: Yes. They should get a phone.
But there’s much more to talk about here.
And as far as when they should get it, I honestly think the answer to that question varies depending on the child.
The general answer is that they shouldn’t get it before they’re ready to handle it well most of the time, and not too late so that they have no time to “train” on it before they’re completely on their own.
For most kids, that’s somewhere between the beginning of 6th grade and the end of 8th. For those of you who think that’s too early, keep reading. For those of you who think that’s too late, keep reading. (And also go watch Mean Girls and make sure you’re not being a “fun mom.”)
2. It’s not “bad,” it’s powerful.
Parents are scared of phones. And I don’t think they should be. I think a better word should be: “Respect.” Parents should respect the power of the phone because it’s powerful.
Like fire, a pocket knife, or a car, a phone is a powerful force. And, powerful forces can be used for great things and terrible things. The same is true for a phone.
When we introduce phones to our kids, we need to consider a phone to be in the same category as fire, pocket knives, and cars.
Most parents I talk to who are struggling simply hand their kids an unfiltered and unmonitored phone and assume it’s going to work out.
It doesn’t. Ever.
But, on the other hand, they’d never hand them a book of matches, a pocket knife, or keys to the car without a strategy. We just need to realize that phones are powerful and should be treated as such.
3. It’s not a “phone,” it’s an “everything.”
One other issue that I see coming up is that we forget that a phone is no longer a phone. It’s an everything.
It’s a phone for calling.
You can text on it. Words, pictures, and videos.
You can video call on it.
You can search the internet.
You can have a social media account . . . or many social media accounts.
You can be tracked.
You can download apps.
You can listen to music.
You can watch cable networks.
You can play video games.
I often wish it were just a phone. But, it’s not.
The thing we have to remember is that there’s a difference between what a phone can do and what our kids can handle at any given time. It makes total sense, and it’s possible, to limit what a phone can do for a season as your child wades into the world of portable technology. This can take some time, but it’s worth it. See our technology agreement for more ideas on this concept.
4. Their first phone should be your old phone.
I’m a big believer that we should start this process with clarity. One thing that will help is that you shouldn’t give them a phone as a gift. When you do this, they assume it’s their phone.
On the contrary, I’d let them use one of your phones as they prepare to get their own phone someday. This clears up so many future arguments.
You can track the location of your phone.
You can look at the contents of text messages, emails, and internet histories on your phone.
You can decide that someone isn’t using your phone well and take it back.
And, on top of that, if it’s your old phone, you already know how to use it.
That’s it for now. I could go on and on about this topic because there’s so much to think about. We hope to resource you more in the near future. But, until then, I hope this helps.