When should your child get a smartphone and why some are pledging to wait

ByNydia Han and Heather Grubola WPVI logo
Wednesday, November 15, 2023
What age is appropriate to give your kids a cell phone?
A major issue confronting parents these days is at what age to give their kids a cell phone and how to manage their use on it.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A major issue confronting parents these days is at what age to give their kids a cell phone and then how to manage their use on it. Action News talked to a family and experts to get some perspective.

"Caroline is 13 and Gigi is 11," said mom Jocelyn Hill of South Philadelphia. "I was very reluctant to get them cell phones."

But two years ago, Hill's older daughter, a violinist, was accepted to the Girard Academic Music Program, a magnet school, for 5th grade.

"She took SEPTA and I didn't want her going on the bus by herself with no phone," she said.

Hill gave Caroline one of her old iPhones and now Gigi, her younger sister, has one as well. She said they did try to set boundaries for their usage.

"We tried to tell them that they couldn't be on their phones for a long time. That didn't really work out," she said.

Hill said she's tried setting parental controls to restrict certain apps, but that hasn't worked out either.

"That's a little bit of an exercise in futility as well," she said. "They always figured out how to get around it."

Dr. Katie Lockwood is the Director of Behavioral Health Education at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"It's impacting things like sleep. It's impacting time out in nature and outdoors and with real live social interactions and connections and all of these things are beneficial to your mental health," she said.

But when do parents know how much time is too much time?

"We do know that in some studies, especially in the early adolescent period, 12 to 15 years of age, more than three hours a day was associated with negative mental health outcomes," she said.

Many experts suggest waiting to give your kids a smart phone until they are at least 13 years old or in 8th grade.

"Try not to give into the peer pressure when your child says everyone else has a phone, so I need one too," she said.

Dr. Lockwood is a mom of a 10-year-old and 12-year-old herself and understands the struggle, but says resisting peer pressure now could help in the future.

"These are healthy teen habits that will come up again when they think that everybody's smoking or everybody's drinking," she said.

Hill doesn't regret giving her girls smartphones and said her strategy is to not fight it, but lean in and talk about it.

When should your child get a smartphone and why some are pledging to wait

Talking is something both moms agree is critical, no matter when you give your kids a smart phone.

"Preparing them is exactly what you need to do...so having those conversations about what your worries are, what are some of the risks," said Dr. Lockwood.

"Don't make friends with people that you don't know, don't go meet people that you've met on social media, that kind of thing. I think these are healthy discussions to have, which actually, I think set the table for discussions that you should be having with your children at this age anyway," said Hill.

But some parents prefer to delay smart phones for kids until they're older.

"I wanted them to have the childhood that we all grew up with. I wanted them to enjoy playing outside riding bikes, reading, doing puzzles, hanging out with their friends in person," said Brooke Shannon, a mom of three in Austin, Texas.

Shannon also believes letting children struggle through situations on their own, without mom and dad always being a phone call or text away, helps them grow.

"They learn problem solving, decision making," she said.

But peer pressure can make delaying difficult. So Shannon decided to flip the script by creating group pressure to say no to smart phones through her initiative called the "Wait Until 8th" pledge.

"You are promising to hold off giving your child a smart phone until at least eighth grade," she said.

The pledge has been signed by more than 50,000 families across the country.

"What we have found since we started the pledge is that it helps tremendously. Even if you just have a few friends for your kid to wait with, it makes a big difference," said Shannon.

And Shannon says there are steps you can take before smartphones like letting your middle schoolers text on tablets that stay in common areas of the house.

Or getting a basic phone or watch without all the bells and whistles of a smart phone made by companies like Gizmo, Gabb, and Light Phone 2.

"There's also the Pinwheel phone and the Wisephone," said Shannon.

And Shannon said if you've already said yes to cell phones, as parents it's never too late to roll things back by removing the app store or the ability to download apps without your permission. Take off the internet browser and require kids to turn their phones into you at night or at meals or other times of the day.