When is it appropriate for your child to get a phone?

Editor’s note: askBYS is a new column that will appear the first Friday of every month in the Bainbridge Island Review. It will be written by various Bainbridge Youth Services experts.

The question of at what age a child “should” get their first cell phone is a common one, with no one definitive answer. The answer depends on a variety of factors, including your child’s age, maturity level and need for a phone.

The first factor to consider is the purpose of the phone. If your child is splitting time between two households or is involved in extracurricular activities, a phone can provide a sense of security as well as make communication and coordination easier. If your child wants one tocommunicate with friends, find out how they are communicating and be curious about what they feel adding a phone would gain them.

Secondly, your child’s maturity level is a crucial factor. How often do they lose or break things? How well do they handle limits put on their screen time? Do they already have trouble staying focused on tasks? How well do they communicate when they are upset? Cell phones provide the opportunity to lash out at others in the heat of the moment without the face-to-face social cues that can provide more context and help mitigate harmful words.

If your child is worried about keeping up with their friends, it might be helpful to have some data. According to a 2021 study by Common Sense Media, 42% of kids have a phone by age 10, 71% by age 12 and 91% by 14. It’s important to remember that phone ownership and social media usage do not have to automatically go hand in hand.

No matter what you decide about when your child is ready for a phone, communication about expectations and limitations is essential. What will the limits be of both overall screen time as well as time spent on calls? Which specific times is phone use not allowed? (e.g. at night or during family time.) What happens if the phone is lost or broken? Will it be replaced? If so, how quickly and who will pay for it? It is also important to think about your own expectations about their availability and responsiveness when you text or call.

Lastly, how ready are you to shepherd them through learning how to responsibly use this technology, including following through on the agreed-upon consequences? Ultimately, there is no standard answer as to what age is appropriate for your child to have a phone. It is a personal decision for each family; you know your child best and only you can make the decision that best suits your family’s needs and values.

John Carleton is a BYS therapist.