Getting Smart About Your Kid's First Smart Phone

Today’s Tip on Motherhood is written by Tom Shefchunas. We were so grateful to also have him as our guest on Episode 116 of Wire Talk, answering your questions about technology and we are looking forward to having him as a break-out speaker this year at the Soar conference. The epicenter of the technology conversation has become the smart phone.  And whether you have a little one who gets to interact with an iPad at school or home or you have a freshman in high school, I think it’s wise to start with the phone. Screen time concerns and app issues will soon become phone issues if they haven’t become that already. Although there is so much more to the discussion, here are three big ideas regarding technology to get you thinking:  

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 is “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 handed their kids an unfiltered and unmonitored phone and assumed it would work out. It doesn’t. Ever. These same parents would never hand their kid a book of matches, a pocket knife, or keys to the car without a strategy. We need to realize that phones are powerful and should be treated as such.

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 an easygoing parent, but I think I’m being a responsible parent when I say yes. 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 get a phone. So, here’s my answer: yes, they should get a phone. Obviously the next question is always, “when?” And I think the answer to that question varies depending on the child. My general response is that kids shouldn’t get a phone before they’re ready to handle it well most of the time, but also not so late 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. This will give you a few years to slowly allow them more and more access to the smart phone. You have to remember that a smart phone is not just a phone, it’s an everything. But you don’t have to and you shouldn’t give them access to everything your phone does right off the bat. Please please please don’t assume a child should get their first social media account at the same time they get their first phone.  Social media comes later! That is a whole different conversation (that I'll go more into at the Soar conference) and well beyond what we can do here ...

THEIR FIRST PHONE SHOULD BE YOUR OLD PHONE. I’m a big believer that we should start this process with clarity. One thing that helps is if you don't give your child a phone as a gift. When you do this, they will naturally 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 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 if someone isn’t using your phone well and take it back.

And, on top of that, if it’s your old phone, so you already know how to use it!

One of the bonuses of working with students for the past 24 years is that I am now considered an “expert” on raising teens. As crazy as it seems to me, and as uncomfortable as I am with words like “expert,” I do consider it a blessing to offer up what I know. I was honored to be asked to speak in depth at Soar this year about technology and teens, so make sure you're signed up for the Parenting in the Age of Technology break-out session and I hope to see many of you there for a deeper dive into this discussion.