Is Your Child Ready for a Smartphone?

 Raychelle Cassada Lohmann

The holiday season is now in full-swing, and what do a lot of children have on their wish list? A gaming system, clothes, electronics, and you better believe it, a smartphone. But purchasing a smartphone for a child is a big, pricey decision, and one that many parents may later regret.

Parents today often grapple with the right age to buy their child a smartphone. Some people set a specific age like 12 and others go with their gut feeling, based on the child's maturity. Regardless of how you approach it, this decision should not be taken lightly. Not only are these devices expensive, they also bring with them many dangers, such as sexting and cyberbullying, not to mention online predators who try to take advantage of young, vulnerable children.

In a Nielsen report conducted earlier this year, nearly 45 percent of U.S. youth ages 10 to 12 have a smartphone with a service plan. The clear majority of cellphone-owning youth (93 percent) are on the same plan as their parents, and 72 percent have access to all mobile wireless services including data, messaging and voice. The most popular reason parents gave for getting their child a phone was that they wanted to be able to easily get a hold of the child and for the child to be able to easily reach them (90 percent). Other popular reasons included the ability to track their child (80 percent) and because their child has been asking for a service plan (66 percent) – which brings us back to that wish list.

Before speaking with a phone provider, there are several factors for parents to consider, such as whether their child is mature enough to own a phone and how much time the child will spend using the phone. In today's technological age, most teens are attached to their smartphone. According to Common Sense Media, teens spend approximately nine hours per day on entertainment media like social media, compared with about six hours for youth ages 8 to 12 years. That doesn't include time spent using an electronic device for school or homework. So how much time is too much online? A study in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly found that getting up to six hours of screen time didn't have any detrimental impact on the behavior of teens, but excessive use could be associated with negative outcomes.

Despite the findings of this study, most experts would agree that spending over six hours on an electronic device is too much, as it can lead to what some describe as addictive behavior. When Common Sense Media polled teens about mobile device addiction, 50 percent admitted that they felt addicted to their device, and a larger number of parents (59 percent) reported their teen was addicted. The survey also showed 72 percent of teens reported feeling an immediate need to respond to messages, and 78 percent admitted to checking their devices hourly. About one-third of parents and teens (36 percent and 32 percent, respectively) say they argue with each other daily about device use – something else to take into consideration before making that smartphone purchase.

To help parents establish healthy screen time behaviors, the American Academy of Pediatrics created an online family media plan that assists families in managing media use and establishing rules according to their child’s specific needs. The plan even comes with an individualized media time calculator to help parents set the amount of screen time children are allowed per day. When creating these guidelines, it’s important to remember that moderation and balance are key ingredients to teaching healthy behaviors.

Before parents decide to buy a smartphone for a child, here are some basic questions to consider:

1. Why does your child need a smartphone? Does she want a smartphone because all her friends have one and she’s the only person in school without a phone? Or is it because you need to get in touch with your child and vice a versa?

2. How responsible is your child? Think about whether your child is equipped to handle the responsibilities that come with owning a phone. For example, is he constantly losing things, or does he take care of his belongings? Replacing a phone or repairing a lot of cracked screens can get expensive.

3. Are you ready to write up a contract? Parents should set up a clear and concise smartphone contract with their child, like the AAP’s family media plan. When parents have a signed agreement, it’s much easier to manage online behaviors. The contract should be reviewed periodically and updated, since what's applicable today may not be relevant in a couple of months.

Parents should put in the contract that they have the right to check the phone at any time. Children should not have any forewarning of the checks as they may try to clear or delete information. Consistency is important. When parents aren’t consistent, children will believe the contract is a joke, and they will continue to test the limits. Hopefully, as youth get older and demonstrate greater responsibility, parents will be able to allow more freedom. Here are some ideas for things you might include in the contract:

No smartphones in the bedroom at bedtime. Set a time for when children should hand their phone over on a school night and on a weekend night. For older teens, parents should be able to allow more autonomy, but there should be clear guidelines stating that the phone goes off when the head hits the pillow and doesn’t come back on until the alarm has sounded.
No smartphones during family time. Screen time should not compete with family time. Phones should be off limits when the family is hanging out in the living room, and at the dinner table. Spending time with the family creates memories. Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, these special times are few and far between and need to be cherished. Create a "no phone zone" basket, and when it’s time to hang with the family, have each person, parents included, drop their phone in the basket.
No setting up media accounts or downloading apps without parental consent. This is an important rule for newbie phone owners. When children first get a phone, they may be on overload with all the cool apps and sites they can explore. Parents need to monitor how their child is using the phone. Establishing good habits early can help children learn how to use their phone responsibly in the years to come.
No texting and driving. This rule is self-explanatory. Parents should encourage teens to set up an auto driving message that lets others know they are driving and will get back with them. Once the message is on, teens should put the phone in the console until the car is parked.
No phone during school unless it's needed for educational purposes. Too often teens use their phone during class – and this is frequently done behind the teacher’s back. And you better believe that one upsetting text from a friend can interrupt an entire day of academic instruction.
4. How much privacy should you give your child? Taking age into consideration, youth want privacy, and that should be respected. Monitoring online behavior should change as kids mature and show they're capable of good decision-making. For example, monitoring a 17-year-old’s online behavior should look different from monitoring a 13-year-old's unless, of course, the older teen is engaging in harmful behavior – then safety trumps privacy.

5. Does your child balance and prioritize responsibilities? Does your child seem to manage things like schoolwork and extracurricular activities well? If he’s already able to balance and prioritize multiple things at once, then that’s a step in the right direction, and he can learn to apply those same skills in managing his phone.

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Domain: Afterhours
Category: Entertainment

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