Should You Get Your Child a Smartphone?

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Should you get your child a smartphone?Your child shouldn’t have a smartphone until they’re in high school, recommends author and Common Sense Media founder James P. Steyer. Learn the risks—from compulsive texting to cheating on tests—and Steyer’s tips about when kids are truly ready for a smartphone. From Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age.

Teens are under huge pressure to have smartphones with unlimited texting and data plans. Most of their friends probably do, and texting is the only way many of them seem to communicate. Actually talking on the phone is so old school. Thirteen-to seventeen-year-olds text more than any other age group. And kids text everywhere—at school, in the mall, on the bus, at home, and in bed when they’re supposed to be sleeping. According to a 2010 study, nearly half of all teens who take their phones to school send a text while they’re in class at least once a day.

Texting can be both impulsive and compulsive. It’s easy for kids to lose control of the messages they’re frantically typing and the amount of time and attention they’re giving to their phones instead of more important things in life—like homework, safety, and face-to-face communication.

Teens love texting because they can be instantly in touch with friends, no matter where they are. But the rapid-fire exchanges can mean that kids don’t take the time to think before they push the “send” button. Without the help of facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, words on a screen can seem harsh, insulting, or ill-considered. They can also be saved and shared publicly, without permission. Once you send a text message or photo, you lose control of it. And some teens use texting to hurt or humiliate other people. It’s easy to snap an embarrassing photo with a smartphone and text it to dozens of people, and taunting, hateful messages can do psychic damage. Smartphones are powerful communication platforms, and in immature hands, they can create havoc.

Too much texting is a problem, too. When kids have their eyes glued on their cell phones, they’re not paying attention to people and what’s going on around them. When they’re texting and doing homework, they’re not retaining everything that they’re supposed to be learning, and they’re often spending much longer on assignments than they should be.

And phones in school can be a temptation to cheat. Nearly 70 percent of schools prohibit cell phone use, but most kids ignore those rules. More than 35 percent of them say they’ve used their cell phones to cheat—by texting quiz answers to their friends, photographing and sending them pictures of exam questions, and going online to find answers when they’re taking a test.

With a smartphone and data plan, kids also have instant access to lots of apps that encourage risky choices and behavior. The Android Market, for example, features tons of cheap drug-related apps like Garden of Weeden, which teaches users how to grow pot, and Nose Candy, which provides step-by-step, illustrated instructions for using cocaine. The iTunes App Store offers apps like Meet New People, which enable and encourage users to flirt with strangers. The bottom line is that a smartphone is much more than a phone. It’s a pocket-sized, portable Internet device that kids can use privately, with little or no supervision.

So, especially if you have a younger teen, think carefully about the distraction and risks of handing him a smartphone. The older the child, the better. I personally think kids should be in high school before they have one, and that’s the rule in our family.

If you decide that your teen is ready to use one, though, set clear ground rules first, as well as consequences for breaking them, and reinforce them often. Here’s what I recommend:

• Understand everything the phone can do before you give it to your child. Trust me, your teen will figure it all out, so you should know its capabilities and restrict, disable, or refuse to pay for any features you don’t want her to use, like texting and going online. Just because her friends do it doesn’t mean she has to.

• Be clear about what, and when, it’s okay to text. Make sure your kid understands how to use the phone responsibly. If you’ve decided that unlimited texting is okay, your teen should know to stop and think before he hits the “send” button, and that he should never send sexual or harassing texts. He should also know and always obey school rules about phone use, and that he should never cheat. Set overall family rules, too, about cell phone use—no phones at any meals, for example, or in the bedroom—and set firm consequences, like losing phone privileges, for breaking them.

• Tell your teen that you reserve the right to check the messages and photos on her phone if she doesn’t seem to be following the rules. It might feel like snooping, but her cell phone is a privilege that you’re paying for, and it’s your job as a parent to make sure she’s safe.

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