How Safe Is My Kid’s Cell Phone? Your Questions, Answered

Today’s parents are confronting a new challenge that previous generations didn’t have to reckon with: when to get their kids a smartphone, and how to manage its use.

According to the nonprofit Common Sense Media, 43% of kids now own a smartphone by the time they’re 12.

These questions are especially pressing as Apple readies the launch of new products on Sept. 7, and the answers depend on your own child’s unique abilities and personality.

“It’s a big decision,” says Erin Wilkey Oh, content director for Common Sense Media. “There are a lot of factors to think through.”

There is still a way. If you’re considering getting your child a phone, experts in kids and technology say there are a few things to consider: a child’s comfort with big responsibilities, how to keep them safe online, and how a phone will fit into their lives overall.

TIME spoke with experts on the basics of choosing a smartphone for your child or deciding whether to wait.

What age should your child get a smartphone?

There’s probably no reason a child needs a phone before middle school, says Betsy Braun Brown, a child development specialist and author of You’re Not the Boss of Me. She says it also depends on an individual child’s comfort with responsibility: only get a phone when a child has proven themselves able to take care of their things and seems ready for a big new challenge.

“The kid who is still losing his jacket every week is not ready for a phone,” she says.

“Wait as long as possible,” says Julia Storm, Digital Media Wellness Educator and founder of ReConnect. Once you give your child a smartphone, you are entrusting them with an expensive—and potentially addictive device. Storm claims that it could transform their relationships with the world and you forever.

“From a purely developmental standpoint, young kids are not particularly well equipped to regulate their smartphone use,” says Storm.

A 2019 study from researchers at King’s College London concluded that 23% of children have “problematic smartphone usage” that leads to negative mental health effects—including depression, anxiety, stress, and sleep problems.

What’s the safest phone for a child?

Safer phones will be simpler. If a younger child absolutely needs a phone—for example, to stay in touch with family—look for a flip phone and preload it with a few key phone numbers. An iPad with FaceTime is also possible, according to Siggie Cohen (a Los Angeles-based child and family therapist). She says: “Especially since the pandemic, there is much more need to feel connected, and FaceTime lets you do that, without access to everything.”

Storm states that smartphones are becoming more kid-friendly for children younger than ten years old. Pinwheel and Gabb are simplified smartphones that allow parents to control what apps they use and limit the number of them.

Storm also recommends smartwatches for kids, which can act as a “bridge between no phone and full smartphone.” A smartwatch would give kids the ability to communicate via text, but limited access to the internet, games, or social media.

Should I set up parental controls on my child’s phone?

Kids with smartphones have easy access to social media sites—and may be on them even if they’re younger than platforms allow. A report by MediaSmarts digital literacy nonprofit MediaSmarts found that twenty percent (4th graders) use social media sites like Snapchat and Facebook. However, their policies mandate users must be 13 or older. Parents need to be vigilant about their children’s safety and security, especially as bullying and other unsafe behavior can begin on such sites.

The device’s content settings, found in the screen time menu, can help keep any movies or TV shows watched on the phone to PG ratings and can also only allow kids to view certain types of websites.

Storm suggests that parents think about the possibility of getting a phone for their child’s first experience driving. “You can’t just hand off the keys and say ‘good luck!’ Kids need some guidance, certain restrictions and boundaries as they learn how to navigate this very complex and overwhelming landscape.”

Storm also says it’s important to start slow. Children should not be able to use social media until they are familiar with it. Parents need to limit their children’s access, restrict time, and avoid using news apps. Kids can feel overwhelmed or scared when trying out new apps.

She says that phones can distract children from their sleep, and so it is important to establish clear guidelines about when the phone should be turned off or put away outside of the bedroom at night.

What can I do to help troubled people?

Bark, a service that checks phones for red flags and warns parents when children are involved in dangerous online situations with bullies or other strangers, can help. Bark checks texts and emails for potential signs of cyberbullying and threats of violence.

Wilkey Oh, of Common Sense Media, says that parents should teach kids what to do if something makes them feel uncomfortable, whether it’s witnessing something like bullying or hate speech. She calls it a “red flag feeling: that feeling in your stomach where you feel anxious or worried.” In those cases, kids should learn to pause, Wilkey Oh says—and think about what is going on and what is making them feel this way. They should then talk to an adult who can help them block and report bad behavior.

A parent’s tone matters, though. Talk about potentially harmful scenarios like violent content or bullying in a way that isn’t patronizing, says Cohen. “We can’t prevent what is out there, but we can actually talk about things that are inappropriate for them at their age,” she says, noting that regular discussions can remind a child that your job as a parent is to keep them safe.

How should I talk to my child about the use of their phone?

Brown, author You’re Not the Boss of Me,A simple contract for a mobile phone is recommended. It outlines the rights and responsibilities associated with owning a smartphone. Brown also advises that kids contribute to the monthly cost of the device—including repairs and purchasing apps.

“Whether it’s $15 or $5 a month, the child needs a sense of ownership,” she says. “And paying for something makes you more tuned into having it.”

She says any contract should be written collaboratively, and there’s no one-size-fits-all template for what the document should say.

Parents can also model good phone behavior, showing kids that phones aren’t simply mindless screens for endless scrolling. Wilkey Oh says when she picks up her phone in front of her kids, she dictates what she’s doing—so they know she’s using it for a reason.

“There are skills that are teachable for kids, before they start using these technologies,” Wilkey Oh says. “It’s better to have those conversations than to just assume they’ll figure it out.”

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