As CPA begins to expand our child & adolescent services, we’re pleased to announce we’ll be periodically sharing short articles by CPA clinicians on issues addressing children, adolescents, and parents.
One of the most common questions I get from parents is about cell phones for children. Actually, multiple questions: at what age should my child get one? What kind? What are the pros and cons? In this, as in other aspects of childrearing, I use two guidelines: developmental stage (is your child seven or seventeen?) and your child’s individual readiness and personality.
Generally, elementary age children can be quite careless with their belongings (just check any school lost and found!) and are engaged in active play that can mean loss or damage to an expensive phone. Younger children still tend to be involved in more supervised activities and thus have less need to have a cell phone from a communications or safety perspective. By middle school though, children may be spending more time independently away from parents and adults, and it can be reassuring to be able to touch base and make plans with your youngster.
As with any new activity or tool, it’s best to start cautiously and experimentally until you know what your child can handle responsibly. I recommend the most basic phone you can get, or to use a plan that sets limits (on amount of texting, etc.)
Go over phone manners and phone safety, but do so by asking your child questions rather than telling them. Ask, “How do you think you’ll use this phone? What do you think would constitute misuse? What do you think would be fair consequences for misuse? What do you think are the pros and cons of someone being able to tell where you are through locations services? How will you make sure you won’t lose/damage your phone?” and so on. If you engage your children in active thinking and include them as a part of the process, they will be much more likely to internalize and “buy into” any guidelines or rules.
Another practical consideration is that because screens and blue light are disruptive to sleep, and because texting and internet can easily send us down a rabbit hole of wasted time, make sure your children don’t have their phones in the bedroom at night.
And finally, remind children about manners—that phones are not to be used during a meal, that you shouldn’t glance at your phone when engaged in conversation with someone, that parental texts and phone calls should always be answered promptly. This, of course, means modeling responsible and polite phone use yourself!
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist at the Lexington and then the Brookline Public Schools. Her child and family oriented training includes pre-doctoral placements at Dedham Public Schools and the therapeutic Arlington School at McLean Hospital, an APA approved doctoral internship at Beaverbrook Guidance Center, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the McLean Learning Evaluation Center.
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