Ask BBB

Q: When is the appropriate age to give a child a cell phone? And what kind of limits can I impose on it?

It is much easier to say when you shouldn’t give your child a cell phone than when you should.  Even indulgent, enabling, weak, ignorant, parents know better than to give a preschooler or primary grade student his own cell phone. But after that, for some it gets murky. (Believe it or not, I do know of a second-grader who was given his own cell phone! Yes, of course he lost it. You guessed right.)

But parents’ knees begin to buckle somewhere around fourth or fifth grade and easily at sixth grade.

There are all kinds of excuses that parents have for giving these too-young children a cell phone.

So he can reach me if he needs me, aka “safety reasons.”

So I can talk to him when he is with my ex.

So I can reach him when he is done with an activity or needs a pick up.

And my absolute least acceptable excuse … because everyone has one.

I have a response for each of these reasons.

Please don’t tell me the world was a safer place when you were growing up. If your child is old enough to be somewhere alone, he must know how to keep himself safe or get the necessary help, if need be.

Divorced parents have been raising children and managing communication with them while at the other parent’s home since forever.

My kids were told to be at the front of the park at 5. If they weren’t there, there were easy consequences, including no return park visits or better, a long walk home.

This is the one that trips up most parents. Not only is there social pressure to have your own phone, but your child actually sees it as a given, a right that he will get one. No longer is it even considered a privilege. Don’t take the bait.

I know how hard it is to deal with your child’s whining complaint that “Evvvvvveryone has one” and “I am the onnnnnnly one who doesn’t have a phone.” And I am sure it brings back painful memories from your childhood, when your own parents forbade your buying something or permitting an activity or privilege.

But this isn’t about you. This is about how you want to raise your child. It’s not about making up for your past.

Most people in my field of development and behavior agree that children should not have a cell phone before middle school. For a while, seventh grade, or the start of middle school, had been an acceptable age.

Now I am part of the movement Wait Until 8th, which is encouraging parents to wait until their child is in eighth grade before allowing him to have a cell phone. (More on this at bit.ly/2voBLPO.)

Reasons abound for waiting until eighth grade. We know that once your child has his own cell phone, childhood is changed forever. The time for playing outside with neighbors, hanging out with siblings, messing around in your room, reading for fun just slip away.

Parents seem to push aside the reality that a cell phone, the one your child wants, is far more than a phone. In fact, the phone part is the least of it. It is a computer and the doorway to the great wide web, rife with exposure to all kinds of things for which your child is too young. Just try offering your child a flip phone instead of a smart phone.

And, in case you don’t realize it yet, it’s not just the smart phone your child wants. It is the phone complete with Instagram and Snapchat for which the minimum age is 13. For YouTube, another big favorite time suck, the minimum age is 18 years, although with a parent’s permission kids age 13 to 17 can sign on.

The addictive qualities of these are being addressed everywhere. Studies are released daily that address the effects of cell phone and screen use on the child’s still-growing brain. These must not be ignored.

Yes, there is so much to consider about what having a cell phone will do to your child, to your relationship and to your family life. At the same time, you must consider your child and his readiness to be a responsible cell phone owner.

How responsible is your child (within reason)? Does he:

Keep his word?

Follow through with your requests in a timely manner?

Meet his stated responsibilities, mostly without reminders?

Manage his personal responsibilities?

Accept responsibility for his chores and behavior?

It is obvious where I stand on this question. I even wrote a blog on the topic way back in 2010, which can be found at bit.ly/2GMtIqC. But each parent and family needs to carefully consider your values and goals. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

I wish I could give you a list of cell phone limits that will accompany your cell phone permission. I can only tell you that you must have a lot of them, and they need to be very clear and specific. For example:

Never at a meal table.

Never after a certain time of night (after which all devices go home to their charging station in the kitchen).

Never before homework is done.

Never before chores are completed.

But these will be up to you. I suggest you scour the internet for examples of what others have done.

I also suggest that you have a cell phone contract with your child that accompanies the cell phone acquisition. This agreement very specifically details your rules, limits, expectations and consequences for over-stepping. There are also countless examples of these online.

Finally, I urge you to consider having your child contribute to the cost of either the phone or (preferably) his monthly usage fee. There is nothing like his (literally) buying into something to get a child’s compliance.

Good luck!


Ask BBB is a monthly column in which the renowned parenting expert Betsy Brown Braun answers your questions about raising children in the Palisades. Submit your questions to info@palipost.com with the subject line “Ask BBB.”