How Do I Know If My Child Is Ready for a Cell Phone? (and Much More)

by Kristi Graninger, Langley parent and PALS (Parents Association of Langley) Speakers Committee Member

This is just one of many questions parents are asking themselves these days. As parents of digital natives, technology has introduced so many “firsts” for us to navigate as our children get older and gain independence.

As part of the The Langley School’s commitment to parent education and partnering together as we raise children, we were fortunate to have Dr. Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World and founder of Raising Digital Natives, speak to parents last week. Dr. Heitner talked about how digital habits are formed when children are young and what we can do as parents to ensure healthy behaviors now and into adulthood. Below are just a few of Dr. Heitner’s tips from the session that we wanted to share.

Tips from PALS Speaker Dr. Devorah Heitner (excerpted from her recent newsletter)

  1. Set respectful rules of engagement.

Sharing pictures of your kids takes control away from them. The same goes for updates about them in your Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feed. Luckily, there’s a simple rule: Ask their permission! Asking your kids before sharing teaches them that you respect them and their privacy. What’s more, this practice brings up the opportunity to discuss boundaries with your children. Set up some rules. Every single member of the family should be on the same page about posting or sharing images of other family members.  

  1. Create unplugged zones.

Not every room in your house has to have a TV or “second screen.” Make sure that the comfiest, coziest spots in your home are not taken over by media devices. Everyone needs some offline time. These unplugged times offer different kinds of engagement – and this variation and the ability to take pleasure in a variety of activities will support your child.

  1.  Mentor more than you monitor.

If you want to know what your kids are doing on their devices, start by talking with them. Have empathy for their experiences, and ask them what would make their texting and social media encounters better, easier, or less stressful. If you are tempted to use spy software to see what they are doing, consider having them give you a tour of their accounts as an alternative. Before they download a new social application such as Instagram, have them show you how other kids are using the app, and ask them to show you both positive and negative examples. It is a great way to hear them explain their own discernment process.

  1. Structure transitions to minimize screen-monster syndrome.

Use habits and routines to minimize post-screentime tantrums and flip-outs. Don’t let screentime be the unstructured time that fits in around everything else. If your kids love Minecraft, let them have specific “Minecraft times.” Try making a calendar. Plan what they will do AFTER their immersive screen experience, too. If they turn into “screen monsters” and act unpleasant when it is time to unplug, let them know you’ll be dialing back their time in 15-minute increments until you find the increment that does not transform them into monsters. Let them take some responsibility for their mood and behavior.

Note: Don’t be surprised if your children or spouse let you know when you have become a screen monster. Make sure to take responsibility for your mood and behavior, too!

  1.  Use “independence milestones” to determine when your child is ready for a cell phone.

If you are feeling pressure from your child or other parents to buy him/her a phone, remember – this is a big deal and it is still your decision. You might feel particularly intense pressure to buy your child a device around milestones such as birthdays or holidays. Instead of a date on the calendar, consider independence milestones, ways for your child to demonstrate that she’s ready. Does she make her own lunch? Walk home from school on her own? Spend a short time home alone? Can he babysit a younger child for short windows of time or take public transit by himself? Is he responsible with his allowance or other money/savings? Is she organized with her homework, or putting away her own clothing? If so, maybe your answer will be, “Yes, she is ready.” Maybe you can even set progressive milestones so that your child has to work toward the responsibility and demonstrate readiness.

Another indicator that your child might be ready (or not) for a phone is his social decision-making ability. Is your child impulsive? Quick to feel angry or excluded? Good at apologizing if she has made someone feel bad? If your child has not yet had the opportunity to demonstrate some of these life and social skills, you may want to hold off on a personal device.

Give your child a chance to learn, let him practice making plans via text message on a family or shared device, and let him know which skills are most important to demonstrate before you buy him that phone.

Up Next: On January 24, PALS and The Langley School will welcome psychologist and parent specialist Rachel Bailey who will present “How to Foster Internal Motivation (Without the Nagging!).”


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