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Your kid has been lobbying for ages now—but are they ready to own a smartphone? On the one hand, there’s an army of 7-year-olds with iPhones everywhere you look, but on the other, parents all over the internet are asserting we wait later and later to give our kids phones. So, what’s the right age?
The quick and dirty answer: because kids mature at different paces, there is no goldilocks age for a kid to get their first smartphone. But gauging maturity is harder than measuring age, and it varies from kid to kid. Here’s how you can get started:
Ask your kid why they want a phone—and listen to their reasoning
They want to talk to friends. They want to play games. Everyone else has one, why can’t they?
None of these reasons are inherently bad, and they can clue you into what your child thinks a phone will “fix” in their lives. If it’s boredom or connection to friends, there could be a better solution. This is especially true if your kid is still pretty young and not the only one at school without a smartphone. If this is all sounding pretty familiar, you’ve got your answer. Your kid doesn’t actually need a smartphone yet. If you need a communication solution to contact your kid at school or when they’re out playing, there are plenty to choose from. For kids ages 6-11, check out Relay!
But if you’re raising a tween or teen experiencing feelings of isolation, they’re not just being dramatic—at a certain age, not having a phone can be a social stigma and cause awkwardness and angst. At this point, many parents feel like their hands (and wallets) are forced because their kid has finally reached that age—but if your tween or teen hasn’t demonstrated the maturity necessary to own a smartphone, age might not be the metric you want to rely on when deciding to make that big purchase. But you can help them along the path to maturity.
Write up a smartphone contract—then tear it apart
The smartphone contract, a mock contract where your child accepts all the rules and responsibilities involved in owning their new tech, is a good place to start. But a piece of paper isn’t a bulletproof guarantee that your kid will live up to all the responsibilities outlined there. Instead, we’ll use it as a parental tool where you can determine exactly what “responsible enough” and “mature enough” mean for your family.
When putting together your contract, you can go through all of your worries and conditions for smartphone ownership. Afraid your kid will drop, lose, or otherwise destroy the phone? Write it down. Worried they’ll spend all their time texting and playing games? Write down your screen time limits. Need them to be smart about what they post online? Write in a digital citizenship clause.
You’ll end up with a good list of rules—but just because your needs as a parent and purchaser are outlined on a piece of paper doesn’t mean your kid is immediately ready or able to meet your expectations. So tear up the contract and turn those rules into actionable goals for your child to reach.
Set goals and provide your kid with opportunities to reach them
Here are some sample goals and actionable steps to give your kid the opportunity to develop and display their maturity. Tailor the steps to your needs as a parent, your child’s maturity level, and their past behavior to create the right set of goals for your family.
Treating possessions with care and respect
Better than handing your kid a $100-$1000 phone and expecting them to treat it like the high-cost investment it is, you could give them a chance to treat the things they already have with respect, establishing the practice as a habit. Does your kid often lose things, have trouble keeping their room tidy, or otherwise treat their possessions and space carelessly? Offer them the opportunity to:
- Keep their room tidy for a set period of time
- Keep track of an important object for a set period of time
- Leave spaces in the home cleaner than they found them for a set period of time
Once you’re satisfied that your child has the ability to respect, keep track of, and not break their possessions, they’ve proven they have the ability to take care of their smartphone.
Pro Tip: Worried you kid will just sink into old habits once the “test” is over? While you can keep an eye out for backsliding, remember that they’ve proven their ability to respect their possessions—even if they mess up here and there.
Responsible screen time management
When you hand a kid a candy bar, you can hardly expect them not to devour the whole thing in one sitting. And even if you asked them not to eat it all, the kid might still have trouble waiting. So what if you put a highly addictive screen in their hands? Even adults have trouble putting their phones down! In order to develop screen time management skills, kids need practice. Let them try their hand at some of the following:
- Self-regulate their TV intake for a set period of time (even if that means stopping in the middle of an episode.)
- Do the same with other forms of screen time, such as surfing the web, playing video games, etc.
If your kid shows they have the willpower to limit themselves to just a couple rounds of Fortnite per evening, that’s big: you can feel confident in their ability to respect the rules you set around screen time. Not sure what kind of screen time rules are right for your family? Learn about the common sense approach to screen time management!
Pro Tip: It’s important for parents to set a good example in this area. Try having device-free dinners and keeping your own screen time under control so your child can emulate that behavior.
Digital citizenship and cyberbullying
Nobody wants to find out that their kid is a bully. And in the age of the smartphone, bullying has proliferated throughout social media, and kids can say some hurtful things online. Chances are that your kid will use the internet well before getting a smartphone, so allow them to use the technology they have to prove they know appropriate behavior and where to draw the line.
- Let them learn not to “talk trash” when they play video games.
- Try co-viewing and co-playing when they’re online. When you see something problematic, whether it involves your child or not, have a conversation about it.
- Show them social media posts from influential people that had lasting consequences and talk about how these things can’t be truly erased.
This is an area where you are going to have to place a certain amount of trust in your kid if you intend to respect their space and privacy. Make it clear that they will need to earn that trust.
Pro Tip: To drive the “internet-is-forever” point home, delete one of your own social media posts and then find it again using the Wayback Machine.
Being available when parents need to get in touch
If your kid goes out with friends but can’t be bothered to pick up when you call, you might wonder why you even bothered with the whole smartphone thing. In many cases, parents need to stay in contact with their kids well before they are mature enough to handle a smartphone. If that sounds like you, maybe your kid already has a “dumb-phone” or an alternative communication solution like Relay. If so, you can just judge this one based off their track record, simple as that.
Pro Tip: A Relay or a kid phone works well for teaching kids to treat their possessions with care and not lose them!
A smartphone earned, not given
At this point, unless your kid was already excelling in these areas to begin with, they have put in a lot of effort to get to their goal. That effort means so much more than a list of rules they signed before getting their new toy. Now that they’ve lived the rules and shown they can handle responsibility, they might just take care of their new phone—they might even appreciate it.
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