Is your child ready for a smartphone?

Children are extremely savvy when it comes to using electronic devices. Starting at a young age, they learn how to maneuver electronics better than some adults. In fact, some children know how to turn on their favorite YouTube channel before they learn how to properly speak. In today’s society, children are exposed to technology through tablets and computerized learning toys from infancy. Smartphones and tablets have become the go-to devices to keep infants and toddlers occupied to avoid public tantrums due to idle time. Therefore, it’s only a matter of time before your child will want his or her own smartphone. As a parent, how do you respond to the constant nagging for a smartphone? And more importantly, how do you really know when your child is ready for one?

Allowing your child to have a smartphone can be a great thing for both of you. You can instantly contact your child when you are running late for pickup; you can be contacted immediately if there is a problem at school; and you can use it as your own personal tracking device to keep tabs on your child’s location. However, before allowing children to dive headfirst into the smartphone world, be sure to have a conversation with them about appropriate use and responsibility.

Here are some simple steps to help make sure you and your child are ready for the responsibility that comes with having a smartphone.

  1. Set up rules and expectations.

Have a conversation about the rules and expectations of cellphone use. Create a cellphone contract with clear expectations for usage, and consequences if the contract is broken. It is extremely important that the contract is meaningful and enforceable at all times. If you treat it as another piece of paper, children will take it for granted.

Set up time limits for phone use and rules around data usage.

Make all rules clear! Do not assume that children “should have known” something.

Have your child turn in the phone to you at night to ensure they are getting proper sleep and not messaging with friends throughout the night.

  1. Warn about inappropriate texts and pictures.

You may not be prepared to have a conversation about sexual messages and pictures with your child. However, if they are old enough to have a smartphone, then you are trusting them enough to have a smart conversation about inappropriate behaviors.

Sexting is real and it happens every day in the school environment. Make sure your child knows what to do if they get an inappropriate text or picture. Inform your child to not forward messages to friends and to immediately tell you or a teacher.

Inform your child of the legal implications of sending nude pictures of themselves to someone or forwarding a sexually suggestive picture that he or she may have received from a classmate.

  1. Teach your child about cyberbullying and how NOT to be a cyberbully.

A cellphone means 24/7 access to everyone. In a pre-cellphone and pre-social media era, bullies stayed at school and what happened at school most likely stayed at school. With round-the-clock electronic access, a bully is now hard to escape. Inform your child of the steps to take if he or she is bullied. Know the passwords of your child’s  phone, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Kik and any other social media app he or she is using.

READ MORE: Safeguard your child against cyberbullying

Know who is sending direct messages to your child and the type of messages your child is sending to others.

Social media platforms, games and group chats make it easy for kids to be bullied. Talk to them about the signs of and have open conversations with them on what you and the school will do about bullying when it is reported.

  1. Use it as an opportunity to teach responsibility.

When children have a smartphone, they have a major responsibility. Smartphones are an expensive item. No matter if your child has the first version of an iPhone or the latest-and-greatest device, there are costs associated with having a smartphone.

If your child earns an allowance, have your child contribute financially.

As a household, brainstorm ways that you can use a cellphone as a teaching tool to increase personal responsibility.

  1. Always remember it is YOUR phone.

If you buy a phone for your child, then you are allowing your child to use your phone. No matter what your child tells you, the phone is your property — you own it.

It is your right to take it back, turn off the data and turn off the service if you feel your child cannot be responsible for your phone. Since it is your phone, it is important that you make sure you know how to use it.

Children are smart and have amazing skills with using electronic devices, which can be dangerous for them. Don’t let your child outsmart you.

When you give your child a cellphone, know what apps are downloaded and how to use them. Be aware of where they save pictures, texts, emails and messages so when you conduct daily searches of the phone, you know exactly what you are looking for. Always know passwords to unlock the phone. Be aware of the phone’s parental controls and safety measures.

Smartphones are your child’s lifeline to the world. As a parent, you need to know what is going on in your child’s world to protect him or her from themselves and others.

  1. Teach and model putting the phone down.

Have a set time each day for the family to unplug from electronic devices.

Unplugging is an important habit that we all need to practice daily.

For many of us, electronic devices are ringing, buzzing and pinging from the time we wake up in the morning to the time we go to bed at night. Set family time that is phone-free time. Create a phone box to put everyone’s phone in. Then, for at least 30 minutes to an hour each night, try to make your home a cellphone free zone.

The use of electronic devices can quickly turn into an addictive behavior for some individuals. Allow children the ability to unplug from the electronic world so they can feel re-energized and refreshed the next day.

Remember that you know your child best. You are aware of your child’s maturity level, friends and daily habits. When handing your child a device that requires a great level of responsibility, be sure to trust your instinct. A smartphone allows quick, instant access to everything in the real world. As a parent, do your best to monitor, protect and prepare your child so they can use their smartphone in a manner that is safe and responsible.


Jennifer Williams (Walton), MA, LPC, LCPC, is a mental health professional at Anne Arundel Medical Group (AAMG) Mental Health Specialists, located in Annapolis. To reach her, call 410-573-9000.

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