Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
Before buying a child a phone, a parent should determine whether they are ready for one
Parental control apps and family contracts are also recommended, tech experts say
In households around the world, I imagine many conversations going something like this: “Mom, I really want a phone. Everyone has one. Can I please, please get one this year?”
And then, after hearing the appeals, Mom (or Dad, or both parents) edge even closer to buying a smartphone for their insistent teen or tween.
But before parents purchase one for a gift-giving holiday, they should stop and think about a few core things.
“There’s no turning back the clock once you’ve handed this thing over,” said Diana Graber, co-founder of CyberWise.org, a digital literacy platform for tweens and teens, parents and educators.
Graber, who teaches “cyber civics” to sixth graders in Aliso Viejo, California, said that too often, parents don’t realize just how big a decision it really is.
“It’s not like you’re just handing them a telephone, like when I was a kid,” said Graber, who has two daughters, one in high school and the other in college. “All of a sudden, the whole world is in your kids’ back pocket, plus all the information in the world – good and bad.”
Once parents realize the magnitude of the decision and how it is the “purchase of a huge life-changing experience,” they need to decide whether the time is right for their children, said Graber.
To help parents, she and another tech-savvy expert, Lori Cunningham, founder of the blog The Well Connected Mom, offered five tips on what to think about before buying a phone for kids.
1. Are they ready?
It’s simple enough: Are your kids ready for a smartphone? First, are they responsible enough to take care of one?
“Even if you think your daughter (or son) is pretty responsible, they’re going to leave the phone behind. They’re not used to having something so viable with them all the time, other than a backpack, maybe keys to the house,” said Cunningham, who uses her digital platform to try to simplify technology for busy moms.
Once you decide your teen or tween is responsible, you need to think about whether they can handle a device that automatically connects them to the world.
Graber said parents should keep in mind how kids don’t fully understand the ramifications of everything they post.
“I’m always like, I wish parents could be up here to see how much their kids don’t know, and it’s not their fault. They just don’t have that thinking capacity quite yet. They’re programmed to make mistakes. It’s what they do at that age,” she said.
2. ‘Cyber Civics’ 101
If a parent decides their child is ready, the next step, experts say, would be to give them some “cyber civics” training, teaching them about things such as bullying, the permanence of what they post and stranger danger online.
“I liken it to giving the keys to your kid to a car,” said Cunningham, who has a 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. “You don’t just give them the keys. You teach them how to use the car. You work with them. You train them. You make sure that they know the pitfalls and things to watch out for, and then you give them more freedom as you go.”
If a “cyber civics” or digital literacy class is offered in your school or community, sign the kids up. If not, parents can check out learning tools on sites such as CyberWise.org, which offer a range of lessons on digital safety and online citizenship, said Graber.
“A parent can learn about all the things that a kid encounters online, and then if the parent understands what it is, it’s very easy to have that conversation with the child,” she said.
3. Sign on the dotted line
Both Cunningham and Graber are big believers in creating a family contract surrounding the use of the phone.
A contract can include how the phone ultimately belongs to the parents, how the parent will have access to all passwords related to the phone and apps on the phone, the hours the phone can be on and off, how it will be charged overnight in a centralized charging area that is not in the child’s bedroom, and what happens if the family’s phone rules are not followed.
The contract can really help parents figure out what their plan is surrounding the phone, which is crucial, said Cunningham.
“It’s kind of a like a puppy. You don’t just give them the puppy and just say, ‘Oh, wait a minute, they’re not picking up the stuff like they’re supposed to. Wait a minute, they said they were going to do that before,’ and so, you kind of have to have a plan,” she said.
Parents can find plenty of contracts available online, but the key is customizing one for the family, she said. “You can’t just grab one … and have (your child) sign it and be done. You have to customize it, because you have your own family rules, and the things that you find important (are) things that might not be covered in other contracts.”
4. Parental control apps
Parents should also embrace the technology available to them to help them monitor the technology they’re giving their kids, both Cunningham and Graber say.
There are multiple apps for parents: Some allow parents to track everything their kids are doing on their phones, and some give parental alerts if certain high-risk words are used in texts or social media.
“This is probably the biggest debate that I hear from parents, that they deserve their privacy. ‘We have no right to do that. They need to have their space,’ ” Cunningham said. “Well, yeah, they can have their space in their room, and they can have plenty of privacy in there, but when it comes to the phone … it’s no longer their privacy.”
It’s not as much about spying on our kids, she said, as it is about making sure things like bullying and sexting aren’t going on and that suicidal thoughts are not being expressed.
“Often, of course, it’s not our own children. It’s somebody else’s kid that’s going through this, but our kids are involved because they’re friends or they know of it or somebody else has got them involved, and our kids do not have the maturity to deal with these problems,” she said. “And left alone, it could lead to suicide, or it could lead to a big flare-up at school or sexting or all these different things that are happening.”
5. Don’t punish by taking the phone away
If your kids break the family rules related to their phone or do something else using their phone that is cause for concern, don’t punish them by taking the phone away, because that might make your kids less likely to open up about a problem they are encountering online, said Graber of CyberWise.
“That sends their behavior underground, and that’s the last thing you want,” she said. “If there’s a problem, you want them to feel comfortable to come to you and say, ‘Hey, can you believe this person asked me to send them a sext?’ ”
Parents will want to hear about such behavior, but “if your response is like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m taking your phone away’ or ‘I’m going to tell that parent,’ that window is going to close, and you want to keep that door open,” she said.
Parents should instead try to keep that dialogue. “There are just too many things that can go wrong, and we need to have their backs in that world,” said Graber.
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Ultimately, you may feel like your child will never be ready for a phone, or you wish you could avoid ever giving them one. (I am definitely in the latter category!) But we need to let them have them eventually.
“It’s like a rite (of) passage,” said Cunningham. “This is part of their life. Touchscreens are their life, and it’s a habit, yes, it’s bad, yes, at times, but it can also be their lifeline, their connection to others, including the parents.”
What do you think parents should consider before buying their kids a cell phone? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.