It's the burning question on every family's lips: At what age should you buy your kid a smartphone or similar mobile communications device? Ironically, as parenting experts note, and we point out in new book Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide, there's no one answer that fits every household. Rather, the decision when to invest in such devices is largely a function of family need, children's maturity level, and both how well-equipped that you feel your children are to make good decisions and the safety tools that you've put in place to catch them if they should stumble.
However, in the interest of providing a succinct answer, be advised: Many parents first introduce a cell phone to kids around age 13. While some households lean a little younger, you'll find it a fairly reasonable starting point if you're looking for an opening guideline. That said, it may help to remember as follows from a practical standpoint. When you really should introduce a mobile device to kids' lives is when there's actually a meaningful, pressing need to do so. For example, when your child starts after-school activities and will be outside of easy reach and you absolutely, positively need to keep in contact with them.
That said, a few key pieces of advice to keep in mind as you weigh the decision are as follows:
- Consider buying a cell phone that dials only your contact number if and when kids need to come home alone. Prepaid cell phones can also let you limit call times and features, restrict Internet usage, prevent access to unwanted features, and monitor overall usage, and usage patterns.
- If you're concerned about receiving unexpectedly large bills, or kids' Internet activity, opt out of texting or endless data plans and choose a basic feature phone that forgoes bells and whistles such as downloadable apps, unlimited Web browsing and GPS tracking to limit children's online interactions.
- Always read the manual, research and go hands-on with phones, smartphones, tablet PCs or any high-tech device that provides VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) or digital calling functionality before you hand them over to children. It's imperative to know the ins and outs of the cell phone you're considering for your child before you give it to him or her - a good rule of thumb for any high-tech device for that matter.
- consider restricting cell phone usage to only taking place in your presence until kids are mature enough to handle calls, texting and online interactions on their own.
- Be certain to monitor cell phone activity and usage, and review your bill regularly for suspicious calls, activity or communications made when mobile handsets are supposed to have been shut down, e.g. 3AM on a Tuesday night.
In addition, before placing a smartphone or connected device in kids' hands, it is also important to share the following safety tips:
- Never share personal information (e.g. your name, address, hometown, birthday, school or telephone number) online.
- Never upload pictures or video of yourself onto the Internet where they can be accessed by strangers.
- Never tell people where you're currently located or headed soon, including when and where you're headed out on vacation. Note that location-based apps may introduce check-in or activity-tracking features that may share this information inadvertently unless privacy settings are configured to prevent this.
- Don't download pictures, click on email attachments, or visit unsolicited online links from an unknown source.
- Don't be afraid to come forward and discuss it if you see something that you have a question about online.
- Don't forget that everyone is, to some extent, playing a character online - whether in a mobile video game or otherwise.
- Set limits on screen time: 60 to 90 minutes makes a good starting point. Every hour of online activity should also be balanced with equal or greater time away from high-tech devices.
As you can see, the decision on when and how to introduce a smartphone to a child isn't an easy or straightforward one. However, by following a few simple rules and guidelines, it becomes far easier to navigate - and far easier to help keep your kids safe online.
Award-winning professional speaker Scott Steinberg is among today's best-known trends experts and futurists, and the bestselling author of Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide, Millennial Marketing: Bridging the Generation Gap and Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty. His website is www.AKeynoteSpeaker.com.