Hold the phone? How to tell when your tween is ready for one

December 7, 2018 Providence Health Team

Parents need to be good role models when it comes to phone usage.

Rules and screen time limits need to be clearly communicated in advance.

Parents need to monitor their child’s phone daily to ensure the rules are being followed.

“When do I get a phone? All my friends have one!” If you’re the parent of a tween, you’ve probably heard this plea more than once from your child. If you’ve been wavering on when to make the jump, you’re not alone — the decision to give your child a smartphone shouldn’t be made lightly. It will connect your kid to a whole new world and to all the potential good and bad that can come with that.

You may be asking yourself how you will know when your child is ready for his or her own phone, but you also need to make sure you yourself are ready, too. Nadine Baker, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with Providence Medical Group Behavioral Health in Anchorage, Alaska, gives you some guidelines to help you decide if it’s time to expand your family’s phone plan.

You need to watch your own phone usage.

Parents have to be good role models that kids can take their cues from. “You have to demonstrate for your children how to use the phone, or any form of technology, in a healthy way that doesn’t take away from your other responsibilities or activities in life,” Dr. Baker says. “Your actions speak a lot louder than words.”

Establish good communication with your child that doesn’t involve talking on the phone.

Technology is always changing, and your child may be looking at apps or videos that you don’t even know exist. If your child sees something troubling, you want them to come to you. “Creating an open dialogue with kids about what is happening in their life, including how they use the phone, is important,” Dr. Baker says. “That way, no matter what situation arises, there is already a precedent for talking with your child about what they’ve seen or experienced.”

Set the ground rules before handing over the phone…

“Not being clear from the beginning what the expectations are can lead to a lot of conflict, power struggles and opportunities for kids to be exposed to things we may not want them to be exposed to yet,” Dr. Baker says. She advises parents to start with a conservative approach and set up strict parameters: the phone shouldn’t be used during meals or after a certain time each night so your kid can wind down for bedtime, and phones should not be accessible overnight. “Make sure the rules are clear and simple so kids can follow them. Writing out something like a contract can help.”

…And make sure your kid is following those rules.

Setting rules means you have to be prepared to follow through and monitor your child’s phone. Your kid should understand that you absolutely will have daily access to their phone. “The language you use is important: ‘This is our phone and we are going to allow you to use it to help with our communication. It doesn’t belong to you and therefore we get to look at it at any time. If there is an issue with us having access to it, then you won’t be allowed to have it,’” Dr. Baker says. “I think a lot of times kids think, ‘It’s my phone,’ but it’s the parents’.”

Don’t forget to set consequences for misuse.

If you see evidence that the rules aren’t being followed, the consequences must be consistent and immediate, Dr. Baker says. “It’s helpful for kids to know how much time they will lose the phone for if they break a rule. Depending on what happened, it usually works to take it for one day and then give it back. The goal is to create healthy habits.”

Get advice from knowledgeable sources.

Devices can differ between brands and technology is always changing, so it can be hard for parents to keep up. Dr. Baker recommends that you talk with your cellular service provider about what parent-friendly features can be put on the phone to help monitor usage. You can also get advice from other tech-savvy parents about what works, and what doesn’t. “There are things you may not even think about. Your child could be playing a game of solitaire, but if they are online they can still communicate with a friend or stranger without you knowing,” Dr. Baker says. “It can be helpful to have other people who can educate you or tell you what situations they’ve encountered.”

Retain veto power over downloads.

Your child should never be allowed to download anything to the phone without your approval. Conversely, you may be tempted to download numerous apps that track phone usage — but be careful. “Kids are savvy enough these days that they can figure out how to disable any preventive measures, and it’s a lot of work for parents to have to monitor it,” Dr. Baker says.

Make time for activities that don’t involve the phone.

“Electronics are an extension of our bodies; they’re everywhere you go and such an easy trap to fall into, even for adults,” Dr. Baker says. “When we are engaged in any kind of device we don’t have direct interaction with people. There are a lot of developmental needs that are best expressed by that personal interaction. Online, words don’t mean the same and emotions aren’t expressed the same and it can be harder for people to know the intent of a message.” To keep your child from isolating, set limits on screen time. The Family Media Plan from the American Academy of Pediatrics helps you balance screen time with important activities such as exercise, schoolwork, sleep and quality family time.

Keep an eye out for changes in your child’s behavior.

If you are concerned your child is somehow accessing inappropriate material on the phone, there are some signs to watch for. That can include changes in how your child normally acts—is she spending too much time alone in her room, avoiding activities she used to enjoy or saying things that indicate she isn’t happy with herself, such as, “Nobody cares about me,” or “I have no friends.” More serious signs include self-harming, staying out too late or going places without telling you. “It’s important to spend enough time with your kids to notice that things are changing and not be afraid to ask them about it,” Dr. Baker says, adding that parents who are concerned should take their child to the pediatrician or a mental health provider to have a safe space to discuss what is going on. “Parents should trust their instincts. If something seems different, it’s better to have it checked out rather than hope they grow out of it.”

Telling your kids that the limits and monitoring of their phone use protects them from getting hurt is important. You will have to say it a lot and understand that they hear you but don’t fully grasp the weight of what you’re saying; and it won’t reduce their desire to test the limits, because they are highly likely to minimize their own risk of being harmed unless and until it hits closer to home.

If you have questions about kids and media usage, or other parenting topics, get the Circle by Providence app, which offers provider-approved advice on common child-rearing issues. If you’re looking for a pediatrician, find one near you in our physician directory. or visit:

AK: The Children’s Hospital at Providence

CA: Providence Pediatrics; St. Joseph Health Pediatrics, Northern California; St. Joseph & St. Jude Heritage Medical Group

MT: Grant Creek Family Medicine

OR: Providence Children’s Health

WA: Pacific Medical Centers – Pediatrics; Providence Pediatrics; Providence Pediatric Associates – Spokane, Northpointe

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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