One of the biggest questions parents have today is “When should my child get a cell phone?” And to go along with it “How can I keep my tween safe on a cell phone?” There is no easy answer to what the right age is because what is right for one child is not necessarily the right one for the next child. Each one is different, times are different, phone safety is different, phones themselves are different, and the world is different.
Just take the Covid 19 pandemic; it has changed the way we work and the way our children socialize. When everything shut down, children became remote learners and we became remote workers. They relied on screens to attend school, we relied on screens to attend meetings. But they also turned to the screen to keep in touch with friends, entertainment, and to learn more about hobbies and other interests.
Common Sense Media recently found that 6 out of 10 children between the ages of 8 and 18 watch videos online every single day. In fact, tweens spend an average of 57 minutes a day watching videos online, and teens spend 1 hour and 22 minutes a day.
Cell Phone Rules for Kids
Kids will need rules for cell phone safety, especially if this is their first time having a cell phone. Here are some ideas of rules to help keep kids safe.
A call from a parent must be picked up every single time, no excuses
A dead phone should not be used as an excuse – if she isn’t responsible enough to keep the phone charged, she probably shouldn’t have a phone.
Should phones/texting be allowed at the table? Will the phone be a distraction while doing homework? Many parents have a rule of no phones in bathrooms or bedrooms.
Set a screen time limit
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, the average time a child 8-10 years-old spends on a screen is 6 hours, 11-14 is 9 hours, and 15-18 years is 7 ½ hours. And that is not including the time they spend on screens for school.This can have an impact on their mental and physical health.
There have been studies that show links between screen time and obesity, depression, behavioral issues, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and social skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends these screen limits: under 2 years old – zero screen time; 2-5 years old – no more than 1 hour a day and that is watching with a parent or sibling; 5-17 years old – no more than 2 hours a day, except for school and homework.
Obey school phone rules
Rules differ from school to school so be sure to check your local school’s policy. According to a 2020 study, 96% of high schools and middle schools have some kind of policy and 78% of them prohibit any phone use during class time. I know it can be hard to not send a text to your child when you are thinking about something they need to do or forgot, but parents also need to resist the urge to text their student during school hours–let’s set a good example.
Downloads need to be approved by a parent
Maintain an open-door policy
Children need to know that they can come to you with any question or concern without judgment or fear of getting into trouble. Encourage them to ask those awkward questions about what a sext is, or what to do if they read a hurtful post on Instagram. And you need to be able to ask them questions as well . . . like what is a FINSTA (a fake Instagram account).
Understand and obey internet safety guidelines
It is hard enough for an adult to know how to keep her identity and information safe, but a child can unsuspectingly put herself at risk. A planned vacation is exciting and who doesn’t want to share it on Facebook? But that lets everyone know your house will be empty for a week. Even worse, a post that she is home alone. Check out NetSmartz,by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. It talks about internet safety and how to protect our families online.
Spot checks and together checks
A spot check is when a parent checks apps, texts, settings, and photos without any notice. This is super important when a child is first getting a phone, but as time goes on these checks will get less and less frequent. Don’t assume that a quick scroll through a feed on social media will be good enough.
There are comments, private messages, texts, “stories,” and videos that are part of a child’s cyber life. A together check is when you look at her phone together. She holds the phone and shows you the apps she’s using, photos she has taken, and who she is texting. And this really helps with the open door policy; you’ll be surprised by what you learn.
Behavior should be as good online as it is in person
Encourage children (and adults!) to think how others will react to their post before they hit “post.” We all need to be reminded that once our thoughts are out there in cyber space there is no taking them back. Here is a 3 minute video that you can watch with your child and then have a great discussion about internet etiquette:
Phone curfew and family docking station
Having a curfew for phones to be turned off is a great way to help ensure children won’t be distracted by a phone when they should be sleeping. A family docking station can give parents peace of mind.
It seems like we spend so many years teaching, worrying, and trying to keep our children physically safe: car seats, seat belts, crossing the street, not talking to strangers, and the list goes on. Once they are old enough for a phone it all starts over with a new list of worries, from cyber predators to social media posts that can haunt them for years. It can feel like giving children smartphones is like inviting a tsunami to hit our home. The best we can do is to prepare for it and we can do this by teaching our children how to navigate having the internet at their fingertips.
Cell Phone Risks Parents Should Watch For
One way to keep children safe is to know what is out there. Here are some of the risks to be on the lookout for:
In doing research for this article, I came across this definition: “Cyber bullying is bullying – unwanted, repeated, aggressive, negative behavior – that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, tablets, and computers. Cyber bullying can happen anywhere online, including over email, through texting, on social media, while gaming, on instant messaging, and through photo sharing.”
At first I thought this was a great way to explain what parents are dealing with, but I soon realized that it is not a complete definition. Cyber bullying also can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment and hurt. It happens on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, in instant messages, online chatting, forums, chat rooms, and message boards (such as Reddit). And those are just the most common places.
According to one survey, at least 1⁄3 of middle and high school students have reported being bullied online, and only 40% of those kids tell a parent. Interestingly, Instagram is the most common site to be bullied on (79%), followed by Snapchat (76%). There are some great tips for parents to help recognize and help with cyberbullying. One of the most helpful websites I found is https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/what-is-it. It has a cute short video and offers some great tips for parents like what to look for and how to help your child if she is being bullied.
How many of us have been scrolling on our phones when an unwanted pop-up ad on a free game comes on our screen? Now imagine that pop-up having an explicit image or maybe it’s an ad showing images for a violent game. And finally, imagine that your child sees it.
Consider these alarming statistics by CommonSense: 15% of teens say they first saw online pornography before 10 – the average age is 12; 73% of teens by the time they are 17 have seen pornography; 44% actively looked for it while 58% said they just came across it; 63% of those who accidentally saw also report they they had seen pornography in the past week; and 41% of teens say they have seen nude images or sexual acts online during the school day (bypassing existing WiFi filtering). And this next stat says it all: 8 out of 10 18-year-olds think it is too easy to see pornography online.
“Sexting” is a combination of sex and texting, but also includes other messaging services like Telegram, SnapChat, and social media sites. It can be a written text, a video, photo, or audio recording.
What is scary about this is that 90% of teens think their peers are sexting, which means that they consider this behavior normal. According to a recent study at least 1 in 4 teens are receiving sexually explicit texts or emails; 1 in 7 are sending sexts. More than 1 in 10 teens are forwarding sexts without consent, and about 1 in 12 teens have had sexts they have sent to someone forwarded without their consent.
There are so many problems that can arise from this: it can lead to bullying or harassment. These images can become part of their digital footprint, which means they never go away; and depending on the state, it could lead to legal charges because sharing images of those who under the age of 18, even if everyone involved is under 18, and even if they didn’t request a copy of the photo, could lead to legal charges. Being charged with child pornography is very serious. It can affect a teen’s future, they may have to register as a sex offender, have trouble getting accepted into college, or have a difficult time getting a job.
It might seem unlikely that your child will come into contact with a predator, but the fact remains that there is a chance. Consider these statistics: On any given day there can be as many as 500,000 predators online. It takes less than 1 year for a predator to talk a child into meeting in person. The ages between 12 and 15 are the most targeted. Oonly 15 % of parents know what their kids are doing online. The main objective from a predator is a sexual image from a child; 80% of child sex crimes happen on social media.
Social media is not the only concern; predators also use chat rooms, Roblox, Minecraft, Clash of Clans, World of Warcraft, or any app or website that requires no age verification and allows unrestricted contact between users. 40% of kids in grades 4-8 reported they connected or chatted online with a stranger. Of those 40%, 53 percent revealed their phone number to a stranger, 21% spoke by phone with a stranger, 15% tried to meet with a stranger, 11% met a stranger in their own home, the stranger’s home, a park, mall or restaurant; 30% texted a stranger from their phone; and 6% revealed their home address to a stranger.
Since the pandemic started in 2019, screen time among kids has increased by 17%.The National Institutes of Health found that this increased screen time went with increased behavior problems, poor sleep, a decline in school performance, and mental health issues. Interestingly, it also found that having a smartphone improved friendships – which is such a good thing.
Researchers have also found that teens who spend 5 or more hours on their phones are 71% more likely to have 1 suicide risk factor, regardless of what they do on their phone.
Jean Twenge, who is one of the researchers, wrote, “It’s an excessive amount of time spent on the device. So half an hour, an hour a day, that seemed to be the sweet spot for teen mental health in terms of electronic devices. At two hours a day there was only a slightly elevated risk. And then three hours a day and beyond is where you saw the more pronounced increase in those who had at least one suicide risk factor.” Again, a good thing that comes from smartphones.
According to an article on Healthline, when we have a “constant influx of information,” say from having smartphone in a pocket or our hand, the levels of stress and anxiety increases. Anyone’s mind, but especially a younger person, is kept in a state of alertness that can be draining.
Yamalis Diaz, a clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine explained how the brain responds to perceived threats – it goes into a “high alert” state. Being alerted of news, emails, pings, and anything else that sends a notification, basically is building stress. But the brain also responds when something is interesting or exciting. And that keeps us wanting to go back for more.
She said that smartphone and tech developers were smart (no pun intended) when they “created things like ‘likes’ and notifications – all things that activate our dopamine circuitry system.” Our brains are constantly “on” either with pleasure or reacting to stress. And that makes it hard for us to not only relax but to not keep checking our phones.
Questions to consider before getting kids a phone
There are so many factors to consider when deciding when the right time is for a cell phone. Some questions you might consider are: Is she responsible enough to take care of a phone? Does she have good judgment? Does she need a phone? Do you need or want to be able to coordinate pickups?
Is she starting to become more social and able to make plans with friends? Does she use public transportation? Does she walk or bike long distances? Is she frequently home by herself? Do you want her to have one for your piece of mind? And maybe the biggest question: Will she agree to your rules pertaining to how and when she uses the phone?
It’s a good idea for parents to discuss these questions together as well as with their child before deciding if the child is ready for the responsibility of a cell phone.
The reality is that cell phones are here to stay. As parents, we love the ability to call our children and for them to call us. We like to be able to see where they are on a Friday night. And it is nice for them to be able to access the internet for assignments and really, to sit back and enjoy some entertainment. . . Don’t we all need to smile and perhaps laugh out loud at those cute cat videos?
We just need to make sure we do our part as adults in keeping our children safe. Like most things, the answer is right in our hand . . . that is, on our smartphone. There are a lot of great parental control apps on the market. Most offer a website filter, location tracking, screen time limits, and an app blocker. Some will let you block and log calls and texts your child makes and receives. Apple has parental controls on their phones that are free and Google has a free app that works on both Android and iOS devices.
While there are a lot of things to worry about with our children having a mini computer in their pocket, there are also a lot of good things that come from that little device. We stay connected with them, they stay connected to us; we know where they are; we can know what their friends are saying and doing on social media; and we can share a laugh at a reel on Instagram. Let’s just make sure we teach them how to be safe in this cyber world that we live in.