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Ask the Experts: Should my Teen Have a Cellphone?

We enlisted the help of three experts, who each had their own take on this tricky minefield of parenting.

“Cellphones for teens. Is there such a thing as the right age? Do you have rules? Do you track what they are doing on it, etc? Thank you.”

Jena Curtis, EdD, Health Professor (SUNY, Cortland) writes:

Choosing the “right age” to give your teen new or extended privileges like a cell phone is a tough call (badum-pshh!). Unlike milestones in early childhood, which tend to have a range of months (e.g. by seven months most babies can roll over in either direction), teen milestones are spaced out over years (e.g. between the ages of 11-14 most adolescents will start wanting more independence). So instead of a specific age, it can be more helpful to think about what skills or type of responsibility your child would need to demonstrate to show you that they are ready for this next step toward adulthood.

Here’s are a few specific skills to think about in terms of Tweens, Teens, and Tech:

  • Care-taking: Phones (laptops, tablets, etc.) are expensive, so it would make sense for teens to show that they are able to look after (and not lose!) other important things.
  • Self-discipline: Tech gives us so many new opportunities to make bad choices. Teens need explicit guidelines about what is and isn’t OK. Discuss your family’s rules about appropriate online behavior (especially around messaging, pictures, and online forums).
  • Situational awareness: Tech opens up new worlds, but some of those worlds are inhabited by some pretty shady characters. Talk candidly with your kiddos about online dangers (everything from hacking and malware to unwanted sexual content*). Discuss the precautions that your family takes to stay safe online. Some examples of these include: monitoring software, rules about giving out personal info online, and settings that allow adults to track a child’s location and tech usage.

This way, instead of telling a child “you aren’t old enough for X” – something that they have no control over, you can focus the conversation on their behavior and your family’s rules. Teens who are able to meet (or exceed!) expectations demonstrate that they are ready for a new privilege or level of responsibility. This also allows for scaling back privileges if/when a teen is not making good choices around their use of technology.

*A final thought about internet safety: Remember the “stranger danger” talk that you had before your kiddo was allowed to go out by themselves? Give that conversation a remix and a replay before your child has unsupervised access to the internet. Research (like this)  suggests that one in five adolescents have received unwanted sexual content online, and one in ten have experienced unwanted sexual advances.

Tweens and teens tend not to report these experiences, for fear that they'll get in trouble and, their freaked-out adult will cut off their internet privileges. Remind your kiddo that you’re here to help them navigate this new, grow-up world that they are entering. Whenever something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, ask them to come to you, so you can figure out next steps together.


Shelby Garay, NBC-HWC, FMCHC, Professional Health Coach Trainer writes:

This is a somewhat controversial topic and one in which parents will have many opinions. Like many parenting challenges, I don’t think there is a definitive answer or a “right” age. I have never been a parent to do things according to a calendar schedule or specific age. For example, I didn’t start foods at the recommended 4 months or 6 months, yet instead when my babies started grabbing at food or showing an interest, generally much later and at different ages. From youth through the teen years, I strived to teach my children to listen to their bodies, to eat when they are hungry (not by the clock), and think critically about all things.

So, it’s no surprise that when it came to cell phones, each of my 4 children got them at different times. Two got them around age 13, one was 12, and the youngest just got his at age 14. Wanting to protect their youngest brother’s youth, his older siblings, then ages 19-25, implored me to wait as long as possible, vehemently stating that his life will change forever once he has a phone so let him “be a kid” for as long as possible.

They didn’t have to convince me or their brother, as my youngest son repeatedly said for years that he didn’t want a phone, even up until this summer when we insisted he get one before starting high school. While certain aspects of having a phone appealed to him, he also saw the pitfalls and drama his siblings experienced. It felt dubious to be “forcing” this powerful pocket device on him, yet I wanted to be able to reach him at school and other places, and thought it would help him to stay connected to his peers and siblings, while hoping not TOO connected.

I think it can be helpful to make the decision collaboratively with your child and based on their wants and needs, as well as your own, not at a specific age. This can be a positive experience of working together to understand each other’s feelings and needs and critically look at the pros and cons of cell phone use and media literacy. You could discuss how a phone might enhance your child’s life and make it more difficult.

I’m an old-school believer in writing out pros and cons for a decision. Using a decisional balance matrix (such as this)  helps to decipher the pros and cons of making a change or not. You and your child can work on this together and may be surprised at what you learn.

As far as rules, I think it can be helpful to have some and they may differ for each child or from other families. Again, working with your child to come up with these rules or guidelines can create fruitful discussion (and maybe some disagreement) about media literacy and create buy-in. No one likes being told what to do and these are decisions that may not need to be dictated.

According to Media Literacy Now, teens are now spending more than  ⅓ of their day using media. They explain that few people understand how media affects us and our society and pose questions such as:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • Why is this message being sent?

These can be great questions to talk with your child about to help them begin to be aware of the commercialization of their attention.

My youngest son surprised me when he readily agreed to charge his phone downstairs each night. I also asked if he could try to start his day without looking at his phone for at least 10-15 minutes. I explained how this can really affect the tone of the day, our nervous system, and energy. He agreed and has followed through, though some mornings are closer to five minutes. I’m happy that at least for now his phone isn’t with him in bed at night (yet there’s no judgment if this isn’t the case in your family - it certainly isn’t for my other kids).

We have a rule about no phones at the table during meals and I want to establish one for use in the car. I would like him to not use it unless there is a specific reason, especially on short trips. I feel like we miss out on so much around us when we are looking at our phones instead of out the window or at those in the car with us.

The rules we have in our family may not be those that are important in yours. I have never tracked my children’s internet use or whereabouts, though I understand why some families may choose to do this. I have at times followed them on social media, though I prefer showing trust, talking frequently about social media use and literacy, and then discussing challenges when they arise. Social media is a whole topic in itself, and also deserves critical, collaborative discussion between parent and child on an ongoing basis.

What rules are important to you? What does your child think are rules that could help them use their phone and media in healthy ways that support their emotional and mental health?

I think a big factor for parents to consider when contemplating when to get their child a phone is to examine their own phone habits and what kind of messages they have been sending to their child for years. Teens can sense inauthenticity from miles away and it’s a big turn-off. Be honest with yourself and your teen about your media and digital use - what is hard for you and what your personal goals are. Perhaps you can work together with your child to use media more strategically so that you both have more time and attention for what matters most to you.


Vanessa Baker, Parent Coach writes:

There is no such thing as a "right" anything with parenting. That's why we often feel so bad and like we are failing because we have to listen to 100 expert and non-expert opinions every day on what is right and what is wrong.

The truth is our own gut and intuition is where we need to check first and last- on all issues.

Your kid, your family, your needs, and goals are all the factors that will help you make any decision. We must listen to our kids, to our hearts, and also know that there are few decisions that we can't tweak as we go.

Let's look at the cell phone issue now.

My "strategy" on this is to first inform the child about the risks, dangers, and responsibilities of having a phone. Make sure they understand. There are so many wonderful resources you can find online if you search internet safety for kids. (Of course, it's not just a "cellphone" anymore, but a window to the universe via the internet in their palm.) Bark is a product that has worked for parents I know. That might be a fit for you.

Second, I trust my kids. I believe in their ability to navigate new opportunities and responsibilities and if they "mess up," we talk about the source of the issue and we adjust together.

Regarding looking through kids' messages and histories, I do not do that or promote that type of privacy breach. There may be times it is appropriate, but normally, it is an over-reach that is detrimental to the learning and social development of the child.

I think of kids/teens as people, the same as myself and I know how I would feel if someone was doing that to me. I model the behavior I seek to see in my kids including respect for privacy.

All the controls and limits in the world can be hacked and superseded by every kid I've ever met. There is no substitute for creating a safe space for open and non-judgment with your child so that when and if hard things do come up like cyber-bullying, screen addiction, pornography, etc. you can talk about it together and make a plan.

So I say start off on a path that you both agree on after thorough education and a fair negotiation-- and leave room to adjust as needed.

Finally, I don't recommend using the phone privilege as a bargaining chip or to manipulate kids' behavior. Giving someone something then taking it away every time you get upset does not work for healthy, trusting relationships.

Ask the Experts: Should my Teen Have a Cellphone?

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Ask the Experts: Should my Teen Have a Cellphone?

At The Family Thrive, we love creating a space where parents can ask their questions directly to the experts. This question, from Wendy, was such a popular one that we had to give it its own article.

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Key takeaways

1

Gauging when it’s a good time for your teen to have access to a cellphone can be tricky

2

There’s no right or wrong age for your child to have a phone, but it’s an opportunity for them to showcase certain skills and capabilities that demonstrate trust and responsibility

3

It comes down to trusting your gut and intuition as well as listening to and communicating with your teen

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We enlisted the help of three experts, who each had their own take on this tricky minefield of parenting.

“Cellphones for teens. Is there such a thing as the right age? Do you have rules? Do you track what they are doing on it, etc? Thank you.”

Jena Curtis, EdD, Health Professor (SUNY, Cortland) writes:

Choosing the “right age” to give your teen new or extended privileges like a cell phone is a tough call (badum-pshh!). Unlike milestones in early childhood, which tend to have a range of months (e.g. by seven months most babies can roll over in either direction), teen milestones are spaced out over years (e.g. between the ages of 11-14 most adolescents will start wanting more independence). So instead of a specific age, it can be more helpful to think about what skills or type of responsibility your child would need to demonstrate to show you that they are ready for this next step toward adulthood.

Here’s are a few specific skills to think about in terms of Tweens, Teens, and Tech:

  • Care-taking: Phones (laptops, tablets, etc.) are expensive, so it would make sense for teens to show that they are able to look after (and not lose!) other important things.
  • Self-discipline: Tech gives us so many new opportunities to make bad choices. Teens need explicit guidelines about what is and isn’t OK. Discuss your family’s rules about appropriate online behavior (especially around messaging, pictures, and online forums).
  • Situational awareness: Tech opens up new worlds, but some of those worlds are inhabited by some pretty shady characters. Talk candidly with your kiddos about online dangers (everything from hacking and malware to unwanted sexual content*). Discuss the precautions that your family takes to stay safe online. Some examples of these include: monitoring software, rules about giving out personal info online, and settings that allow adults to track a child’s location and tech usage.

This way, instead of telling a child “you aren’t old enough for X” – something that they have no control over, you can focus the conversation on their behavior and your family’s rules. Teens who are able to meet (or exceed!) expectations demonstrate that they are ready for a new privilege or level of responsibility. This also allows for scaling back privileges if/when a teen is not making good choices around their use of technology.

*A final thought about internet safety: Remember the “stranger danger” talk that you had before your kiddo was allowed to go out by themselves? Give that conversation a remix and a replay before your child has unsupervised access to the internet. Research (like this)  suggests that one in five adolescents have received unwanted sexual content online, and one in ten have experienced unwanted sexual advances.

Tweens and teens tend not to report these experiences, for fear that they'll get in trouble and, their freaked-out adult will cut off their internet privileges. Remind your kiddo that you’re here to help them navigate this new, grow-up world that they are entering. Whenever something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, ask them to come to you, so you can figure out next steps together.


Shelby Garay, NBC-HWC, FMCHC, Professional Health Coach Trainer writes:

This is a somewhat controversial topic and one in which parents will have many opinions. Like many parenting challenges, I don’t think there is a definitive answer or a “right” age. I have never been a parent to do things according to a calendar schedule or specific age. For example, I didn’t start foods at the recommended 4 months or 6 months, yet instead when my babies started grabbing at food or showing an interest, generally much later and at different ages. From youth through the teen years, I strived to teach my children to listen to their bodies, to eat when they are hungry (not by the clock), and think critically about all things.

So, it’s no surprise that when it came to cell phones, each of my 4 children got them at different times. Two got them around age 13, one was 12, and the youngest just got his at age 14. Wanting to protect their youngest brother’s youth, his older siblings, then ages 19-25, implored me to wait as long as possible, vehemently stating that his life will change forever once he has a phone so let him “be a kid” for as long as possible.

They didn’t have to convince me or their brother, as my youngest son repeatedly said for years that he didn’t want a phone, even up until this summer when we insisted he get one before starting high school. While certain aspects of having a phone appealed to him, he also saw the pitfalls and drama his siblings experienced. It felt dubious to be “forcing” this powerful pocket device on him, yet I wanted to be able to reach him at school and other places, and thought it would help him to stay connected to his peers and siblings, while hoping not TOO connected.

I think it can be helpful to make the decision collaboratively with your child and based on their wants and needs, as well as your own, not at a specific age. This can be a positive experience of working together to understand each other’s feelings and needs and critically look at the pros and cons of cell phone use and media literacy. You could discuss how a phone might enhance your child’s life and make it more difficult.

I’m an old-school believer in writing out pros and cons for a decision. Using a decisional balance matrix (such as this)  helps to decipher the pros and cons of making a change or not. You and your child can work on this together and may be surprised at what you learn.

As far as rules, I think it can be helpful to have some and they may differ for each child or from other families. Again, working with your child to come up with these rules or guidelines can create fruitful discussion (and maybe some disagreement) about media literacy and create buy-in. No one likes being told what to do and these are decisions that may not need to be dictated.

According to Media Literacy Now, teens are now spending more than  ⅓ of their day using media. They explain that few people understand how media affects us and our society and pose questions such as:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • Why is this message being sent?

These can be great questions to talk with your child about to help them begin to be aware of the commercialization of their attention.

My youngest son surprised me when he readily agreed to charge his phone downstairs each night. I also asked if he could try to start his day without looking at his phone for at least 10-15 minutes. I explained how this can really affect the tone of the day, our nervous system, and energy. He agreed and has followed through, though some mornings are closer to five minutes. I’m happy that at least for now his phone isn’t with him in bed at night (yet there’s no judgment if this isn’t the case in your family - it certainly isn’t for my other kids).

We have a rule about no phones at the table during meals and I want to establish one for use in the car. I would like him to not use it unless there is a specific reason, especially on short trips. I feel like we miss out on so much around us when we are looking at our phones instead of out the window or at those in the car with us.

The rules we have in our family may not be those that are important in yours. I have never tracked my children’s internet use or whereabouts, though I understand why some families may choose to do this. I have at times followed them on social media, though I prefer showing trust, talking frequently about social media use and literacy, and then discussing challenges when they arise. Social media is a whole topic in itself, and also deserves critical, collaborative discussion between parent and child on an ongoing basis.

What rules are important to you? What does your child think are rules that could help them use their phone and media in healthy ways that support their emotional and mental health?

I think a big factor for parents to consider when contemplating when to get their child a phone is to examine their own phone habits and what kind of messages they have been sending to their child for years. Teens can sense inauthenticity from miles away and it’s a big turn-off. Be honest with yourself and your teen about your media and digital use - what is hard for you and what your personal goals are. Perhaps you can work together with your child to use media more strategically so that you both have more time and attention for what matters most to you.


Vanessa Baker, Parent Coach writes:

There is no such thing as a "right" anything with parenting. That's why we often feel so bad and like we are failing because we have to listen to 100 expert and non-expert opinions every day on what is right and what is wrong.

The truth is our own gut and intuition is where we need to check first and last- on all issues.

Your kid, your family, your needs, and goals are all the factors that will help you make any decision. We must listen to our kids, to our hearts, and also know that there are few decisions that we can't tweak as we go.

Let's look at the cell phone issue now.

My "strategy" on this is to first inform the child about the risks, dangers, and responsibilities of having a phone. Make sure they understand. There are so many wonderful resources you can find online if you search internet safety for kids. (Of course, it's not just a "cellphone" anymore, but a window to the universe via the internet in their palm.) Bark is a product that has worked for parents I know. That might be a fit for you.

Second, I trust my kids. I believe in their ability to navigate new opportunities and responsibilities and if they "mess up," we talk about the source of the issue and we adjust together.

Regarding looking through kids' messages and histories, I do not do that or promote that type of privacy breach. There may be times it is appropriate, but normally, it is an over-reach that is detrimental to the learning and social development of the child.

I think of kids/teens as people, the same as myself and I know how I would feel if someone was doing that to me. I model the behavior I seek to see in my kids including respect for privacy.

All the controls and limits in the world can be hacked and superseded by every kid I've ever met. There is no substitute for creating a safe space for open and non-judgment with your child so that when and if hard things do come up like cyber-bullying, screen addiction, pornography, etc. you can talk about it together and make a plan.

So I say start off on a path that you both agree on after thorough education and a fair negotiation-- and leave room to adjust as needed.

Finally, I don't recommend using the phone privilege as a bargaining chip or to manipulate kids' behavior. Giving someone something then taking it away every time you get upset does not work for healthy, trusting relationships.

We enlisted the help of three experts, who each had their own take on this tricky minefield of parenting.

“Cellphones for teens. Is there such a thing as the right age? Do you have rules? Do you track what they are doing on it, etc? Thank you.”

Jena Curtis, EdD, Health Professor (SUNY, Cortland) writes:

Choosing the “right age” to give your teen new or extended privileges like a cell phone is a tough call (badum-pshh!). Unlike milestones in early childhood, which tend to have a range of months (e.g. by seven months most babies can roll over in either direction), teen milestones are spaced out over years (e.g. between the ages of 11-14 most adolescents will start wanting more independence). So instead of a specific age, it can be more helpful to think about what skills or type of responsibility your child would need to demonstrate to show you that they are ready for this next step toward adulthood.

Here’s are a few specific skills to think about in terms of Tweens, Teens, and Tech:

  • Care-taking: Phones (laptops, tablets, etc.) are expensive, so it would make sense for teens to show that they are able to look after (and not lose!) other important things.
  • Self-discipline: Tech gives us so many new opportunities to make bad choices. Teens need explicit guidelines about what is and isn’t OK. Discuss your family’s rules about appropriate online behavior (especially around messaging, pictures, and online forums).
  • Situational awareness: Tech opens up new worlds, but some of those worlds are inhabited by some pretty shady characters. Talk candidly with your kiddos about online dangers (everything from hacking and malware to unwanted sexual content*). Discuss the precautions that your family takes to stay safe online. Some examples of these include: monitoring software, rules about giving out personal info online, and settings that allow adults to track a child’s location and tech usage.

This way, instead of telling a child “you aren’t old enough for X” – something that they have no control over, you can focus the conversation on their behavior and your family’s rules. Teens who are able to meet (or exceed!) expectations demonstrate that they are ready for a new privilege or level of responsibility. This also allows for scaling back privileges if/when a teen is not making good choices around their use of technology.

*A final thought about internet safety: Remember the “stranger danger” talk that you had before your kiddo was allowed to go out by themselves? Give that conversation a remix and a replay before your child has unsupervised access to the internet. Research (like this)  suggests that one in five adolescents have received unwanted sexual content online, and one in ten have experienced unwanted sexual advances.

Tweens and teens tend not to report these experiences, for fear that they'll get in trouble and, their freaked-out adult will cut off their internet privileges. Remind your kiddo that you’re here to help them navigate this new, grow-up world that they are entering. Whenever something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, ask them to come to you, so you can figure out next steps together.


Shelby Garay, NBC-HWC, FMCHC, Professional Health Coach Trainer writes:

This is a somewhat controversial topic and one in which parents will have many opinions. Like many parenting challenges, I don’t think there is a definitive answer or a “right” age. I have never been a parent to do things according to a calendar schedule or specific age. For example, I didn’t start foods at the recommended 4 months or 6 months, yet instead when my babies started grabbing at food or showing an interest, generally much later and at different ages. From youth through the teen years, I strived to teach my children to listen to their bodies, to eat when they are hungry (not by the clock), and think critically about all things.

So, it’s no surprise that when it came to cell phones, each of my 4 children got them at different times. Two got them around age 13, one was 12, and the youngest just got his at age 14. Wanting to protect their youngest brother’s youth, his older siblings, then ages 19-25, implored me to wait as long as possible, vehemently stating that his life will change forever once he has a phone so let him “be a kid” for as long as possible.

They didn’t have to convince me or their brother, as my youngest son repeatedly said for years that he didn’t want a phone, even up until this summer when we insisted he get one before starting high school. While certain aspects of having a phone appealed to him, he also saw the pitfalls and drama his siblings experienced. It felt dubious to be “forcing” this powerful pocket device on him, yet I wanted to be able to reach him at school and other places, and thought it would help him to stay connected to his peers and siblings, while hoping not TOO connected.

I think it can be helpful to make the decision collaboratively with your child and based on their wants and needs, as well as your own, not at a specific age. This can be a positive experience of working together to understand each other’s feelings and needs and critically look at the pros and cons of cell phone use and media literacy. You could discuss how a phone might enhance your child’s life and make it more difficult.

I’m an old-school believer in writing out pros and cons for a decision. Using a decisional balance matrix (such as this)  helps to decipher the pros and cons of making a change or not. You and your child can work on this together and may be surprised at what you learn.

As far as rules, I think it can be helpful to have some and they may differ for each child or from other families. Again, working with your child to come up with these rules or guidelines can create fruitful discussion (and maybe some disagreement) about media literacy and create buy-in. No one likes being told what to do and these are decisions that may not need to be dictated.

According to Media Literacy Now, teens are now spending more than  ⅓ of their day using media. They explain that few people understand how media affects us and our society and pose questions such as:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • Why is this message being sent?

These can be great questions to talk with your child about to help them begin to be aware of the commercialization of their attention.

My youngest son surprised me when he readily agreed to charge his phone downstairs each night. I also asked if he could try to start his day without looking at his phone for at least 10-15 minutes. I explained how this can really affect the tone of the day, our nervous system, and energy. He agreed and has followed through, though some mornings are closer to five minutes. I’m happy that at least for now his phone isn’t with him in bed at night (yet there’s no judgment if this isn’t the case in your family - it certainly isn’t for my other kids).

We have a rule about no phones at the table during meals and I want to establish one for use in the car. I would like him to not use it unless there is a specific reason, especially on short trips. I feel like we miss out on so much around us when we are looking at our phones instead of out the window or at those in the car with us.

The rules we have in our family may not be those that are important in yours. I have never tracked my children’s internet use or whereabouts, though I understand why some families may choose to do this. I have at times followed them on social media, though I prefer showing trust, talking frequently about social media use and literacy, and then discussing challenges when they arise. Social media is a whole topic in itself, and also deserves critical, collaborative discussion between parent and child on an ongoing basis.

What rules are important to you? What does your child think are rules that could help them use their phone and media in healthy ways that support their emotional and mental health?

I think a big factor for parents to consider when contemplating when to get their child a phone is to examine their own phone habits and what kind of messages they have been sending to their child for years. Teens can sense inauthenticity from miles away and it’s a big turn-off. Be honest with yourself and your teen about your media and digital use - what is hard for you and what your personal goals are. Perhaps you can work together with your child to use media more strategically so that you both have more time and attention for what matters most to you.


Vanessa Baker, Parent Coach writes:

There is no such thing as a "right" anything with parenting. That's why we often feel so bad and like we are failing because we have to listen to 100 expert and non-expert opinions every day on what is right and what is wrong.

The truth is our own gut and intuition is where we need to check first and last- on all issues.

Your kid, your family, your needs, and goals are all the factors that will help you make any decision. We must listen to our kids, to our hearts, and also know that there are few decisions that we can't tweak as we go.

Let's look at the cell phone issue now.

My "strategy" on this is to first inform the child about the risks, dangers, and responsibilities of having a phone. Make sure they understand. There are so many wonderful resources you can find online if you search internet safety for kids. (Of course, it's not just a "cellphone" anymore, but a window to the universe via the internet in their palm.) Bark is a product that has worked for parents I know. That might be a fit for you.

Second, I trust my kids. I believe in their ability to navigate new opportunities and responsibilities and if they "mess up," we talk about the source of the issue and we adjust together.

Regarding looking through kids' messages and histories, I do not do that or promote that type of privacy breach. There may be times it is appropriate, but normally, it is an over-reach that is detrimental to the learning and social development of the child.

I think of kids/teens as people, the same as myself and I know how I would feel if someone was doing that to me. I model the behavior I seek to see in my kids including respect for privacy.

All the controls and limits in the world can be hacked and superseded by every kid I've ever met. There is no substitute for creating a safe space for open and non-judgment with your child so that when and if hard things do come up like cyber-bullying, screen addiction, pornography, etc. you can talk about it together and make a plan.

So I say start off on a path that you both agree on after thorough education and a fair negotiation-- and leave room to adjust as needed.

Finally, I don't recommend using the phone privilege as a bargaining chip or to manipulate kids' behavior. Giving someone something then taking it away every time you get upset does not work for healthy, trusting relationships.

We enlisted the help of three experts, who each had their own take on this tricky minefield of parenting.

“Cellphones for teens. Is there such a thing as the right age? Do you have rules? Do you track what they are doing on it, etc? Thank you.”

Jena Curtis, EdD, Health Professor (SUNY, Cortland) writes:

Choosing the “right age” to give your teen new or extended privileges like a cell phone is a tough call (badum-pshh!). Unlike milestones in early childhood, which tend to have a range of months (e.g. by seven months most babies can roll over in either direction), teen milestones are spaced out over years (e.g. between the ages of 11-14 most adolescents will start wanting more independence). So instead of a specific age, it can be more helpful to think about what skills or type of responsibility your child would need to demonstrate to show you that they are ready for this next step toward adulthood.

Here’s are a few specific skills to think about in terms of Tweens, Teens, and Tech:

  • Care-taking: Phones (laptops, tablets, etc.) are expensive, so it would make sense for teens to show that they are able to look after (and not lose!) other important things.
  • Self-discipline: Tech gives us so many new opportunities to make bad choices. Teens need explicit guidelines about what is and isn’t OK. Discuss your family’s rules about appropriate online behavior (especially around messaging, pictures, and online forums).
  • Situational awareness: Tech opens up new worlds, but some of those worlds are inhabited by some pretty shady characters. Talk candidly with your kiddos about online dangers (everything from hacking and malware to unwanted sexual content*). Discuss the precautions that your family takes to stay safe online. Some examples of these include: monitoring software, rules about giving out personal info online, and settings that allow adults to track a child’s location and tech usage.

This way, instead of telling a child “you aren’t old enough for X” – something that they have no control over, you can focus the conversation on their behavior and your family’s rules. Teens who are able to meet (or exceed!) expectations demonstrate that they are ready for a new privilege or level of responsibility. This also allows for scaling back privileges if/when a teen is not making good choices around their use of technology.

*A final thought about internet safety: Remember the “stranger danger” talk that you had before your kiddo was allowed to go out by themselves? Give that conversation a remix and a replay before your child has unsupervised access to the internet. Research (like this)  suggests that one in five adolescents have received unwanted sexual content online, and one in ten have experienced unwanted sexual advances.

Tweens and teens tend not to report these experiences, for fear that they'll get in trouble and, their freaked-out adult will cut off their internet privileges. Remind your kiddo that you’re here to help them navigate this new, grow-up world that they are entering. Whenever something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, ask them to come to you, so you can figure out next steps together.


Shelby Garay, NBC-HWC, FMCHC, Professional Health Coach Trainer writes:

This is a somewhat controversial topic and one in which parents will have many opinions. Like many parenting challenges, I don’t think there is a definitive answer or a “right” age. I have never been a parent to do things according to a calendar schedule or specific age. For example, I didn’t start foods at the recommended 4 months or 6 months, yet instead when my babies started grabbing at food or showing an interest, generally much later and at different ages. From youth through the teen years, I strived to teach my children to listen to their bodies, to eat when they are hungry (not by the clock), and think critically about all things.

So, it’s no surprise that when it came to cell phones, each of my 4 children got them at different times. Two got them around age 13, one was 12, and the youngest just got his at age 14. Wanting to protect their youngest brother’s youth, his older siblings, then ages 19-25, implored me to wait as long as possible, vehemently stating that his life will change forever once he has a phone so let him “be a kid” for as long as possible.

They didn’t have to convince me or their brother, as my youngest son repeatedly said for years that he didn’t want a phone, even up until this summer when we insisted he get one before starting high school. While certain aspects of having a phone appealed to him, he also saw the pitfalls and drama his siblings experienced. It felt dubious to be “forcing” this powerful pocket device on him, yet I wanted to be able to reach him at school and other places, and thought it would help him to stay connected to his peers and siblings, while hoping not TOO connected.

I think it can be helpful to make the decision collaboratively with your child and based on their wants and needs, as well as your own, not at a specific age. This can be a positive experience of working together to understand each other’s feelings and needs and critically look at the pros and cons of cell phone use and media literacy. You could discuss how a phone might enhance your child’s life and make it more difficult.

I’m an old-school believer in writing out pros and cons for a decision. Using a decisional balance matrix (such as this)  helps to decipher the pros and cons of making a change or not. You and your child can work on this together and may be surprised at what you learn.

As far as rules, I think it can be helpful to have some and they may differ for each child or from other families. Again, working with your child to come up with these rules or guidelines can create fruitful discussion (and maybe some disagreement) about media literacy and create buy-in. No one likes being told what to do and these are decisions that may not need to be dictated.

According to Media Literacy Now, teens are now spending more than  ⅓ of their day using media. They explain that few people understand how media affects us and our society and pose questions such as:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • Why is this message being sent?

These can be great questions to talk with your child about to help them begin to be aware of the commercialization of their attention.

My youngest son surprised me when he readily agreed to charge his phone downstairs each night. I also asked if he could try to start his day without looking at his phone for at least 10-15 minutes. I explained how this can really affect the tone of the day, our nervous system, and energy. He agreed and has followed through, though some mornings are closer to five minutes. I’m happy that at least for now his phone isn’t with him in bed at night (yet there’s no judgment if this isn’t the case in your family - it certainly isn’t for my other kids).

We have a rule about no phones at the table during meals and I want to establish one for use in the car. I would like him to not use it unless there is a specific reason, especially on short trips. I feel like we miss out on so much around us when we are looking at our phones instead of out the window or at those in the car with us.

The rules we have in our family may not be those that are important in yours. I have never tracked my children’s internet use or whereabouts, though I understand why some families may choose to do this. I have at times followed them on social media, though I prefer showing trust, talking frequently about social media use and literacy, and then discussing challenges when they arise. Social media is a whole topic in itself, and also deserves critical, collaborative discussion between parent and child on an ongoing basis.

What rules are important to you? What does your child think are rules that could help them use their phone and media in healthy ways that support their emotional and mental health?

I think a big factor for parents to consider when contemplating when to get their child a phone is to examine their own phone habits and what kind of messages they have been sending to their child for years. Teens can sense inauthenticity from miles away and it’s a big turn-off. Be honest with yourself and your teen about your media and digital use - what is hard for you and what your personal goals are. Perhaps you can work together with your child to use media more strategically so that you both have more time and attention for what matters most to you.


Vanessa Baker, Parent Coach writes:

There is no such thing as a "right" anything with parenting. That's why we often feel so bad and like we are failing because we have to listen to 100 expert and non-expert opinions every day on what is right and what is wrong.

The truth is our own gut and intuition is where we need to check first and last- on all issues.

Your kid, your family, your needs, and goals are all the factors that will help you make any decision. We must listen to our kids, to our hearts, and also know that there are few decisions that we can't tweak as we go.

Let's look at the cell phone issue now.

My "strategy" on this is to first inform the child about the risks, dangers, and responsibilities of having a phone. Make sure they understand. There are so many wonderful resources you can find online if you search internet safety for kids. (Of course, it's not just a "cellphone" anymore, but a window to the universe via the internet in their palm.) Bark is a product that has worked for parents I know. That might be a fit for you.

Second, I trust my kids. I believe in their ability to navigate new opportunities and responsibilities and if they "mess up," we talk about the source of the issue and we adjust together.

Regarding looking through kids' messages and histories, I do not do that or promote that type of privacy breach. There may be times it is appropriate, but normally, it is an over-reach that is detrimental to the learning and social development of the child.

I think of kids/teens as people, the same as myself and I know how I would feel if someone was doing that to me. I model the behavior I seek to see in my kids including respect for privacy.

All the controls and limits in the world can be hacked and superseded by every kid I've ever met. There is no substitute for creating a safe space for open and non-judgment with your child so that when and if hard things do come up like cyber-bullying, screen addiction, pornography, etc. you can talk about it together and make a plan.

So I say start off on a path that you both agree on after thorough education and a fair negotiation-- and leave room to adjust as needed.

Finally, I don't recommend using the phone privilege as a bargaining chip or to manipulate kids' behavior. Giving someone something then taking it away every time you get upset does not work for healthy, trusting relationships.

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