Many parents struggle over the perfect time for their child to have a smartphone, but are we making the decision harder than it should be? After all, our kids will gladly tell us when they think the time is right. But before giving into their demands and changing their world forever, start with a few questions to help bring clarity to your decision.
Here are 10 questions to ask before giving your child a smartphone:
Are you ready for him to view porn?
With a smartphone, your child will have access to all the wicked thoughts of every person in the world. These thoughts and photos will be lurking behind a very thin layer of parental control, but he can easily and even accidentally slip. Even getting the URL wrong for the White House can send him to a place he didn’t intend to go. He might not mean to see what he just saw, but it’s out there and far more accessible than we realize.
Brain science1 clearly places the age of maturity in the mid-twenties, when the frontal cortex is connected to the rest of your child’s brain. Your teen is not mature enough to walk away from novelty and tempting adult content. Period. He needs you to protect him in this area just like he needs you to make him wear a seat belt.
Does your child ever gossip?
Do you overhear her saying ugly things about her friends? This habit will grow worse on social media. The teen years are not the stage of development when it is easy to withstand constant peer pressure. The pressure on social media is exaggerated compared to real-life pressure. Without a phone, your child will find reprieve when she gets home.
Can he wash his clothes (and dry, fold, and put them away) without any help or reminding from you?
It is more important to learn life skills before a screen takes over. Your teen’s life skill development is a great indicator of his maturity. Can he keep a dog alive, change a tire, and get and keep a real job? You can’t expect your child to be responsible with a smartphone and the world it opens him up to when he can’t consistently follow simple directions to floss his teeth, unload the dishwasher, or empty the litter box without your constant prompting.
Can she pay for the phone?
Buying and maintaining monthly expenses for a phone for your teen is expensive and a step backward in building responsible, soon-to-be adults. The earlier you start the entitlement, the more entitled she will become. It starts with justifying the hand-me-down phone and paying for the data. Then some parents decide to split the bill. But this mommy-will-pay-for-it mentality does not prepare her with the confidence she will need to face real-life responsibility. When you start the habit of paying her bill, it will be difficult to stop. I know parents who are still paying for their 25-year-old child’s phone bills every month.
Can your child sustain eye contact with an adult he doesn’t know and carry an interesting, respectful conservation?
When your child’s language skills are watered down before they are fully developed, he will be at a disadvantage.2 Text speak and Snapchat streaks are not full communication. He will lose the opportunities to practice talking in complete sentences, reading critical body language cues and signals, and being gracious in the give and take of conversation. These skills, along with building understanding and empathy, are much more important in future relationships than any teen smartphone will ever be.
Is your child wise yet?
Smart, perhaps, but not wise. Not yet. Wisdom is gained through repeated life experience while applying knowledge and good judgment. While your child is smart, possibly even extremely smart, she is not old enough to be wise. And don’t expect a phone to make your child wiser. Remember, practicing a skill makes you better at that skill. But practicing an addictive activity does not train you to manage it well, nor does it make you wiser in the process.
Is my child ready to “leave home”?
When you hand over that smartphone, teen peers will take your place as the authority in your child’s life. This premature, over-attachment to peers will easily harm him and your relationship.3 Due to the 24/7 typical use of the phone, your teen’s peers will become the experts in your teen’s lives, leaving you in the dust. He will happily make the trade and with a smile on his face he will lie to you when necessary to preserve that seemingly more important attachment.
Is your child creative?
Perhaps she is. But a smartphone will stunt her natural imagination and creativity. Phones do this by not only zapping free time, but shrinking your child’s real world to a limited, virtual world. Often original ideas and innovation are put aside as your child looks through the “keyhole” of social media—a world where approval from others becomes the priority, fame is the insatiable driving force, and desire for things that she never knew existed is king. This stimulation will capture your child. She won’t be able to see outside the box, much less think outside the box.
Leadership skills are put aside while everyone becomes followers. Give her the gift of an open door of fascination for real things in the real world before you shut the door on the richest season in life for building creativity.
Is your child ever moody?
Research4 says that social media will easily hurt your child, making him more depressed and anxious.
Does your child ever get jealous of others?
Forced to compare every aspect of her life every minute of the day will keep your child from developing her own identity. Every experience she has on social media will become part of the fabric that makes up her identity. Parents know best when it comes to the experiences that should form their child’s identity.
BONUS QUESTION: Will the smartphone make my child/teen a better person for using it?
Are you sure that excessive screetime during adolescence will not harm his brain development? New research is confirming problematic brain changes with excess screen use. This is the biggest question of all. Are you confident that this phone will make your child a better all around person, or will it cause more problems than it is worth? I’ll be honest; in the work I do, I can tell you that more families have experienced the latter—that smartphones, social media, and gaming have caused more problems and have negatively affected their children and their families as a whole.
Childhood is short. Our job as parents is to be leaders and coaches for our kids, to be encouragers and influencers in their lives. Sometimes that means making hard decisions that our kids may not understand and appreciate—at least not immediately. But ask any older teen who has encountered negative consequences of media (depression, predators, porn or gaming addiction, etc.), and I’m sure he will tell you that he wishes his parents would’ve gone counter-cultural on the phone decision. It’s okay to delay getting your child a phone.
It’s okay to say “no.” In fact, it may be one of the smartest parenting decisions you ever make.
The smartphone debate is a tough one for parents, but we’ve got more encouragement for you. Take a look at our book “Can Your Teen Survive — and Thrive — Without a Smartphone?” that’s available on Amazon right now.
- Frances E. Jensen, MD, and Amy Ellis Nutt. The Teenage Brain: a Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. (New York: HarperCollins, 2015.) p. 37.
- Sherry Turkle. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. (New York: Penguin Press, 2015.)
- Gordon Neufeld, PhD, and Gabor Maté, MD. Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Matter More than Peers. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2014). “Children today looking to their peers for direction—their values, identity, and codes of behavior. This ‘peer orientation’ undermines family cohesion, interferes with healthy development, and fosters a hostile and sexualized youth culture. Children end up becoming overly conformist, desensitized, and alienated, and being ‘cool’ matters more to them than anything else.”
- Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, and Gabrielle N. Martin. “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes,and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” SAGE Journals, Association for Psychological Science. (Nov. 14, 2017.) Also see Twenge interview on CBS 60 Minutes: “Groundbreaking Study Examines Effects of Screen Time on Kids.” In this program, 60 Minutes goes inside a landmark government study of young minds to see if phones, tablets, and other screens are impacting adolescent brain development.