Giving a Kid a Cell Phone: How Young Is Too Young?

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A new survey reveals the average age when kids are given cell phones. (Photo: Steve Prezant)

Just a few years ago, most parents didn’t allow their kids to have a cell phone of their own until they hit their middle school years. But like so many other childhood firsts, the first-cellphone age seems to have dropped dramatically. Now, an incredible 53 percent of all 6-year-olds already have their own mobile, according to a survey of 2,290 U.S. parents commissioned by Vouchercloud, a coupon company.

What’s driving the surge in first-graders carrying phones? The main reason cited had to do with parents’ sense of safety. Thirty-one percent of the parents polled said that they wanted to make sure their child could get in touch with them at any time. Another 25 percent said that they purchased the phone to help their child stay in touch with friends and family. And 20 percent reported that they wanted their kid to have one because so many of their young friends did as well.

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The right age to give kids their own phone has always been a contentious and divisive topic. Some parents believe the convenience and security of always being reachable outweighs any potential dangers or misuse. Plus, they argue, having a cell builds independence — which is part of what growing up is about. Others think the lure of texting friends and easy access to the internet, especially online game sites (hello, Candy Crush addiction!) and chat rooms, make them a bad idea for impulsive tweens. The early teenage years are more appropriate for a first-time cell phone, the thinking goes.

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Where do the experts weight in? “A lot depends not on chronological age but on how mature your child is,” Fran Walfish, Psy.D., Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, tells Yahoo Parenting. “But in general, a child should be at least 10, ideally 12 or 13.” It’s not just about a kid’s sense of responsibility. “When you buy a 6-year-old something like that because everyone has one, what will you need to buy them when they’re 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and so on?” Sharon Silver, founder of Proactive Parenting, tells Yahoo Parenting. If you’re debating about when to give your child her first mobile, ask yourself these questions.

• Does she tend to lose things? “A kid who is always losing belongings and misplacing things may not be ready for the responsibility, says Walfish, and you may end up buying a lot of replacements.

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• Does he really need it? If your child is still young enough to almost always supervised by adults, and he doesn’t spend much time away from his family or school, there may be no need to get a phone yet. Adds Silver: “Ask yourself, do they need to have a cell phone or do they need to use a cell phone. If they need to use a cell phone, then they [can] take one that belongs to the family and then return it when they’re done with it. This allows parents to demystify the thrill of it and school them in proper usage and responsibility.” 

• Do his friends have phones already? “You don’t want your child to be the only one without a phone so he feels different from his peers,” says Walfish. At the same time, if you feel he’s too young, you need to stick to your values.

• Will she agree to some ground rules? “Many parents set firm terms of use: they expect the phone to be handed over in the evening, so it can’t interfere with homework and family time,” says Walfish. “They also want to be able to monitor their kids’ usage, so being up front about the fact that you’ll occasionally check in to see how they use it is important.” A tween who can abide by the house rules may be ready for the responsibility.

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