To Phone or Not to Phone—and When?

In previous generations, when parents gathered for dinner and compared parenting notes, a pressing question was “When are you going to let your teenager get a driver’s license?” Comments would be made about how hauling the kid around was proving to be less and less practical, about the high cost of insurance, about safety implications, and about how moving into adulthood is what needs to happen at some point. My parents handed me the keys pretty early as I was driving myself to school and home from basketball practice my sophomore year. I got my first fender-bender in the high school parking lot the second day I drove, but after the rough start, the additional responsibility helped me mature, and I am thankful for the trust my parents gave me.

While the driving question still looms, a more pressing question and one parents are asking earlier is “When do you give your kid a smart phone?” Kids, of course, are asking the same question. “Dad, when can I get a phone like my friends have?”

The View From the Kid

Not to give the child a phone is, in a very real sense, to rob the child of social interaction other kids are having together. Similar to this would be if my parents had not allowed me to sit at the lunchroom table during middle school. The table was where all the fun conversations took place, where inside jokes were told, where connections were made. If they had done that, I would have felt like an outsider in the classroom and at practice, because a big chunk of social interaction would have been pulled from the day.

Chris Martin serves as a volunteer youth leader at his church and told me of a student he is investing in who does not have a phone and does not even want a dumb phone. There are inside jokes, group conversations, and funny instances that occur on social media that the kid cannot participate in. So the pressure to have a phone as early as possible, on the kid and then on the parent, is not small.

The View From Research

The view from research is very compelling that it is wise to hold off as long as possible on giving a child a phone. Kids who spend a lot of time on their phones are less happy, read less, struggle with developing social skills, and struggle more with mental health. In the video below, Simon Sinek compares giving our kids a phone to giving them access to the alcohol cabinet during adolescence.

Those warning us about giving a phone early to our kids are not religious fundamentalists who live in isolation, don’t watch television, and are wary of the world. This is important to understand. They are not even warning us because of the content the kids are exposed to. They are not saying, “Your kid will hear naughty words, so be careful.” They are researchers and authors and professors who are warning because mental health and happiness decline and development is hampered. Those who warn about a phone too early are warning not because of what kids see but because of how it teaches them to think. They are warning because kids learn to live for “likes” and “hearts” on their social media accounts.

Yes, I am glad my parents did not rip me from the cafeteria table even though I heard a lot of raunchy jokes and engaged in a lot of inappropriate conversations. But if the cafeteria table had continually made me less happy, caused me to read less, sleep less, and put me at risk for depression, I am grateful to know they would have.

So When?

I know I want my kids to have a smart phone while they are in my house so I can provide counsel as they engage the online world. But I believe the counsel from psychology professor and author Jean Twenge is wise:

It is best to put off giving your child a cell phone as long as possible. There’s really no reason for an elementary child to have his own cell phone, so that’s an easy one. By middle school, with kids in more activities and more likely to ride a bus, many parents buy phones for convenience and safety. However, that phone does not need to be a smartphone complete with Internet access and the ability to text.

I am currently thinking 14 but am learning and reading and praying and asking others for wisdom. We are parenting in days that are unlike the days before us.