How and When Do I Give My Kid a Phone?
What’s the right age to get your kid a cell phone? Dr. Lisa and Reena look at the research on both sides of the debate. When a parent writes in asking if thirteen might be the right age, Lisa shares what parents should consider before handing their kid a first phone. She also explains how you can hit the reset button with kids who may already have a phone and Reena asks what parents can say to their kids when they want to hold off. Lisa also talks about the one reason when you absolutely should get your kid a phone and how modeling good digital habits can make a difference.
November 2, 2021 | 24 min
Transcript | How and When Do I Give My Kid a Phone?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 54: How and When do I Give my Kid a Phone?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: All right, I think the transition happens closer as you’re finishing elementary to middle school. My son’s asking for a phone.
LISA: Yep. Yep. You’re right. You’re probably right on time for that.
REENA: Is it?
LISA: Or at least for him to be asking.
REENA: Okay. It doesn’t make me happy.
LISA: It’s not the most fun moment in parenting. I can tell you that.
REENA: Thank you for acknowledging that. I feel good.
REENA: We got this letter, and it made me realize I’m not the only person struggling with this, and it talks about cell phones: ‘My 12-year-old has been asking for a cell phone since the fourth grade when some of her friends started getting them. My husband and I read that kids are just not ready to regulate the dopamine levels caused by cell phone usage, and we worry about her brain being distracted by having quick access to social media or YouTube in her back pocket. I don’t want her success in school to suffer or put any strain on her developing social skills. However, I also worry about her feeling left out of the social loop at such a fragile time when all her friends have them. We originally set the age of 14, but with my daughter’s 13th birthday in a few months, I wonder if we should cave. What’s the right age for introducing cellphone usage? What specific rules would you institute? Do you recommend any parent controls or parent review of cellphones If so, how should these work? I’ve read your book “Untangled”
and just recently discovered your podcast. I had been so afraid of the teenage years, but your love of this age is palpable, and it really helped me to get excited for it. Thank you for all you do to help parents of tweens and teens.’ So, what age makes sense, Lisa.
LISA: Well, I think this letter really gets to the crux of it, which is on the one hand, hold off, hold off, hold off. I completely agree with this parents view on things. Like the later you can go without a cell phone, the better. Once you give a kid a cell phone, you’re basically handing them a Pandora’s box. You’re opening up a whole world that, you know, they’re not kids in the same way anymore. You know, it just changes things.
REENA: Is she right, Lisa, about the research? Like what does the research say about the age that you give a kid a phone and how it affects them?
LISA: Well it’s interesting, the dopamine hit piece, I’m like I don’t think anybody can regulate at any age. You know I don’t think that there’s an age where we get good at regulating that, you know, I certainly check my phone, look to see, do I have notifications? Do I get excited? So, it’s a completely valid concern because there is an addictive quality to digital technology and social media. So, you know, once you hand that to your child, you’re going to have to really work to regulate it. What this parent gets at that is so critical is the social piece, and noting that, you know, in the words of this writer, every other kid in the social group has them and worrying that that means her daughter will be left out, and in my experience clinically that’s a valid concern.
LISA: Yeah, and it’s not ill-met. You know, it’s not that kids are texting, you know, they get their phone, they get very excited about text chains and whatever way they are communicating digitally, and it’s not that they are then deliberately leaving out the kid who doesn’t have access to that, it’s just that, you know, the kid isn’t in that party. You know the kid’s not there. So, either in terms of their socializing online, kids get left out if they don’t have a phone. Or in terms of making plans because kids will get on text chains and make plans, and we’re talking 12- and 13-year-olds. They are great kids but they’re not like, oh and let’s remember to call so and so’s home phone to make sure that they’re looped in. Like they don’t do that.
REENA: And do people even have home phones anymore? I just gave up ours like a year ago.
LISA: Seriously. Right. And getting this thing to the parent, can you please text so and so’s parent to make sure that, you know, she knows we’re making plans. Like that’s never going happen, and so when I have counseled families who have really tried to go slowly, hold off, wait, where usually that comes to its end is when they have a seventh grader, you know, and 13 is eighth grade, you know, when they have a seventh grader who is suddenly not in the loop, not left out, feels pushed to the side, and then I end up weighing this clinically. If you’ve got a seventh or an eighth grader who feels really marginalized socially, I will tell you, part of me feels like, you know what? The damage of being socially marginalized at seventh and eighth grade is not insignificant, and we need to weigh that against the damage of giving your kid a cellphone in seventh or eighth grade.
REENA: So, can I just tell you? We really want to fight this as long as we can, but, you know, my son has an iPad so he’s able to text message all these other boys who might have cell phones, but the only thing is he just doesn’t have it around him all the time, which is totally fine because he’s usually tethered to our house. It’s not a big deal. So is there an age? Like do you say it’s seventh or eighth grade to where that iPad situation that I’ve been able to use at this moment in elementary school might not work?
LISA: Well, actually I think that’s the question. If it’s still working, hold off on giving your kid a portable computer that they can fit into their pockets. Like, if what you’re doing is working in terms of he’s able to maintain social connections, he’s not feeling left out socially, he can have the iPad for his long as you can make that work. He does not need a portable pocket sized computer if his social life is going just fine and he can maintain that with an iPad. Like I think that’s a perfectly fine solution, and sometimes what it becomes is the object itself, right? Like that kids want to show their peers that they too have a phone, and so that becomes the pressure around it, and that’s another story, you know, and that might be something we’re emphatic about or we feel like, so sorry, kiddo, that’s just not how we roll in this family. But then, Reena, what becomes interesting is there’s giving your kid a phone, and there’s kid a phone. So, you can give a kid a phone they call basically a dumb phone, which is a phone that looks like, you know, the kind of phone that kids want, but it does not have a browser on it. They have to get permission from you to put any app on it, right? So, they have the shiny object, but you are still really clamping down on what that shiny object can do.
REENA: Wait what is the name of that phone?
LISA: Well it’s basically any smartphone yeah, but kids call it a dumb phone if you don’t put you know a web browser on it. I mean you can basically make it function almost like a flip phone, you know, which can do very, very little. Now you of course could offer your kid a flip phone as a way station to a smartphone, and, you know, a dumb smart phone. My experience is that no seventh or eighth grader worth their salts will be seen with a flip phone. So I don’t think for most families that’s going to work.
REENA: Or even this dumb phone. I mean I would feel like that would even be worse.
LISA: Well, actually, the dumb phone can be, you know, a nice looking iPhone, and kids call it a dumb phone just because there’s nothing on it that really makes it act in the computer, you know, in the kind of very sophisticated ways that iPhones do.
LISA: And largely the content of the web browser, and then, you know, you can make rules about apps and what’s allowed and what you can and can’t have on there. So, they can have the thing that looks like everybody else’s phone but it doesn’t operate like everybody else’s phone.
REENA: I love this, you know, question where the parent here asks, what specific rules would you institute?
LISA: Okay, so here’s the thing on this, and I think this is really important. The time when you’re doing these negotiations with a kid, when they really want a phone and you have all the power, right? This is one of those where you have all the power in this moment. They will agree to anything to get to that phone. And so what I would say is make the most ornery and restrictive rules you can think of about that phone because that position that you establish at the outset of, you know, handing over the phone, you are going to lose ground from there, and you will lose ground over time, and so they will agree to those restrictions to get their hands on a phone, and so I would say, make the most of this. So, I think that the parent should say upon handing a young person a phone at any age, okay this thing never crosses the threshold of your bedroom. This thing charges in the dining room along with all of our other stuff or downstairs, you know, or away from bedrooms, you are to only use this for good. This is a tool. It can be used for good or for evil. You are only to use it for good. If you want an app, you need to check with me what app you’re adding. If you want social media, you need to check with me what social media you’re adding. We will need to approve this. We will need to have conversations about this. So, you are basically like brutal rules at the outset, and one of the best friends a parent has in this world is commonsensemedia(dot)(org).
REENA: That’s a great site. Yeah.
LISA: They are so fantastic, and they do the most beautiful job. Every new weird app, every new weird social media that pops up, they have a review, they have age recommendations, they explain to you what’s all involved, and they even have contracts for cell phone use, and so when my older daughter got her phone, and I will tell you it was in the seventh grade because that’s when the middle school begins in our district, and it just felt like the right time, and it was starting to be, you know, where everybody was making plans. We printed off a contract from Common Sense Media. We added stuff to it. We both signed it, actually it’s still hanging on a bulletin board, I mean my kid’s now a senior in high school. We haven’t looked at it for years. It’s kind of nostalgic at this point, but don’t waste that moment with your kid when they’re basically, I mean you could basically say to them, you can have a phone, you can look at it once on alternate Sundays, and they’d be like, fine, fine just give me the phone. So, grab as much ground and then you will seed that ground over time.
REENA: Yeah, and also to see if they do something major and you have to take the phone, it might, if you haven’t done this contract, it’s probably a good time to introduce it as they’re desperate to get the phone back probably.
LISA: Absolutely, and you can put that in the contract. So, you can put in the contract, you are not to use this to be unkind. You are not to use this to ever share any content that, you know, you would not want your grandma to see, our priest or rabbi to see, you know, I mean really get clear and write all of that out, and then it gets to a question, and this came up in the letter, about monitoring.
LISA: And how much to monitor, and so when you, let’s say the day comes, Reena, the day will come when you give your son a phone, like what’s your instinct on how you’re going to monitor that?
REENA: Lock him up in a room and just say, I have full access to everything you’re watching, so I can tell because you’re sneaking stuff I’m sure that I don’t know about.
LISA: Okay, so you’re going to say to him, basically I get to watch and look at, I get to check your phone inside and out any time I want.
REENA: Yes, but I also knew me, and somehow he’s figured out a way to download, like I see in my Microsoft account he’s downloaded games where I told him on his iPad, he shouldn’t necessarily, he needs to check with me, but time goes by and he’s like, ah, Mom’s not going to mind about this. There’s nothing wrong with that. So, I don’t even know. What are the parental controls and things I should be using, so I know when he downloads something I get pinged?
LISA: Yeah, to tell you the truth I don’t know all the technical ins and outs of that question, and it’s a really important question, but I do know how to answer a question like that, which is you Google it. You just go in and say, how do I get notifications of my kid downloads something I don’t want him to download, and it will invariably tell you, but I also think, Reena, you’re still in a really good position to go back to him and say, buddy, I didn’t catch this when you did it, but you’re not allowed to do this, and if you do something like this again, you’re not even going to have access to the iPad for six weeks, you know? So, I don’t think we want to give the impression that we are able to, in real time, perfectly stay on top. I mean we can’t, really, stay on top of what they do, but I do think there are things that need to be said in addition to like the most ornery contract of all time when we hand over a phone. So, one is if you act on this phone in a way that is not the best of you, you’re going to have to hand it over to me for a week, a couple weeks, I mean like, you know, something that really makes clear you are not allowed to be less than an upright and wonderful citizen with this phone, which means I’m going to check. I’m going to check. I’m going to look at it periodically, and you don’t have to tell them what the schedule of that will be. You don’t have to, you know, suddenly take up a part time job of monitoring your kid’s phone. What you want is the speed bump of that. You want them to be in that moment where, you know, there’s somebody being kind of snarky on a text thread and your kid’s about to jump in on that, and then they think, you know what? My parent could pick up my phone and look, so I’d better not do this. Like there’s value in the rule even if you don’t think to do it for a couple weeks at a time.
REENA: So, what if they break these rules? Because you know that will happen.
LISA: Yeah, so there, I think, a few different conversations to have. So, one is whatever you’ve put in the contract, and even if you haven’t put in the contract you can say, you know what? We didn’t think of this, but you’re not allowed to talk like that on the phone, and so why don’t you take a 10-day break from the phone, give it to me, and then you can try again. You know, delete what you said, apologize for what you said, but this isn’t okay. So, there is that. You know with privilege comes responsibility. When you are not using that responsibility well, you lose the privilege. So, there’s that. The other thing that is really important is to help young people start to understand where we have different kinds of conversations, and so one of the rules I said to my daughters is, you know, they were getting into the digital world. I’m like, here’s how I live. Like dance like nobody’s watching. Email like you could be subpoenaed, right?
REENA: Oh that’s good.
LISA: Like that’s how mature adults think about how they interact in digital environments, that fundamentally, it’s never private. Like there’s no privacy, and so then, Reena, if I have to have a delicate conversation with somebody, you pick up the phone to do that. That’s what grown ups do, and so part of what we want to make clear about, I’m going finger quotes, misbehavior or being less than, you know, charming on their phone is, you may feel like you need to say a little bit more, you know, you may feel like you don’t want to be entirely charming. I’m not going to police that. I’m not going to say, you can only have the purest, you know, thoughts and feelings, I’m going to say don’t do that in a digital environment. If you need to have a hard conversation with somebody, pick up the phone and do it as a thoughtful, mature person who doesn’t create a digital record of something that you, you know, that might be more private or might be more delicate.
REENA: Is there anything else we should say to kids when we give them that first cell phone?
LISA: Well, here’s the thing. I remember exactly having this conversation with my then 13-year-old daughter as her phone was coming around, you know, we were there. We went on a walk around the block because that we way we didn’t have to look at each other, and I said to her, and I think all parents should do this, I said my number one worry about handing you a cell phone is that this will be the venue through which you encounter pornography, and I said to her, it may be that you stumbled on it by accident, you know, and I think I told you this, Reena, years and years ago I took care of a little boy, he was like 9, who went searching for Dick’s Sporting Goods, and then got a lot more than he bargained for. So, you know, that can happen because it’s very hard to have all the right parameters on your phone, especially when they’re not on your home network, or, you know, as kids get older and are on buses with each other, and more and more 13-year-olds have phones, you know, I’ve heard so many stories of a kid, you know, pulling up on the phone showing it to another kid on the bus who doesn’t even want to see it, and so as we were taking this walk around the block, and she knew it was going to end when we covered the block, I said to her, this my number one worry. I’m actually not really worried about how you’re going to act, but you may see porn this way, and it’s going to freak you out, and if that happens, I want to have a conversation about what you saw, I want to answer your questions, I know it’s going to be pretty disturbing for you, and that’s the agreement part of the agreement, you know, with which I’m giving you this phone is that if that happens, we’re here to help.
REENA: That’s great. Before we wrapt up, I just want to go back to the parents who are struggling and don’t feel quite ready to give their kids a phone, but they’re pressuring, you always bring things back to safety. Is there anything in the research those parents can go back and explain to their kids why they want to wait?
LISA: Well, if we go from the safety perspective, or the health and safety perspective, we certainly know that having access to digital technology and having access to a phone comes with a lot of downsides. It interferes with kids’ ability to sleep. It can interfere with emotional regulation and, you know, this comes up in the letter. The parent is worried that, you know, the child may become upset or distracted and just turn to YouTube, right, as opposed to maybe really sitting with that feeling and making sense of it, and it, you know, of course becomes a venue sometimes by which kids, you know, find themselves involved in bullying or, you know, os a victim or a perpetrator. There’s a huge laundry list of downsides to giving kids phones. Again, those downsides are true really at almost any point development, and the upsides are fewer, truly, right? So the upside of ongoing good social connection is one item, it’s a big item, right? And that’s for me why it tips the balance. Kids then to use their phones for her calendar-ing, for, you know, listening to music, and they start to be good and valuable useful things that happen with phones, but with younger kids, I think the argument to be made is there are hundreds of research studies about why this is not going to make your life better, and, sweetheart, at fifth grade, sixth grade there’s no real research showing that this is going to enhance your life. When it becomes a social issue, we’ll talk about it. It’s not a social issue right now. iPad’sworking great. I think the research is always on our side in this in terms of regulating it, keeping it out of bedrooms, delaying, but the social piece is real, and for me that does tip the balance then alongside some some good monitoring, and then, as you monitor as a parent, you know, you’ll start to know your kid, and a lot of that will come down to how impulsive your kid is, how are they using their phone, and I’ll tell you, Reena, in the same family, I’ve had parents make different rules for different kids about the phones because one kid is really impulsive and another kid’s not, so it’s hard to get to universal rules, but I would say, start with an ornery contract, start with monitoring, and then make decisions from there.
REENA: That’s great. Going back to this particular letter. The mom saying, do I hold out until 14 or do I get her that cellphone for her 13th birthday. What would you advise?
LISA: I would advise a hard look at the social question I know I keep coming back to this, but if the child and parent feel that the ability to stay connected to a peer group is starting to hinge on access to a phone, that would, for me, make a phone make more sense and then the goal would be for the phone to be largely to be used for that purpose. Minimal apps, texting for sure, probably not a browser.
REENA: Okay. Wow, okay, you took us to a lot of levels I hadn’t thought of about cell phones. So, I’m grateful for that, and what do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: So, on this topic, here’s the really good news. The rules we are making for kids are exactly the rules we should be having for ourselves. Adults should not have phones in their bedrooms. There’s no upside to this. It totally disturbs your sleep. Adults should not have phones at the dinner table. Adults should not have phones, you know, in the car, you know, especially if they’re the ones driving. Adults should not have phones present if it’s a time when we can really be connected and looking at one another and chatting as a family, and so to that contract, add all those rules, and say, these are for all of us. This isn’t just for kids and phones, this is for humans and phones, and we’re going to model a healthy relationship with the phone, and we’re going to help you develop a healthy relationship with a phone.
REENA: So, giving a kid a phone can also help us reset our own relationships with phones.
REENA: You’ve been to me since I met you to charge my phone in another room that’s not my bedroom. I have not done that yet. Every time I talk to you I’m like, I’m going to try it, I’m going to try tonight.
LISA: Well now we know, when your kid gets a phone, that’s when you’re going to be doing it.
REENA: Absolutely right. Thanks so much, Lisa, and next week’s episode we’re going to talk about how do you keep kids grounded in a materialistic world? I’ll see you next week?
LISA: I’ll see you next week.