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Is it smart to give a smartphone to your kid? Well, the answer is about as clear as the cell reception in a subway tunnel.
Experts say you’ve got to consider the kid’s age before putting a smartphone in his or her hands, but that there’s no magic number. The real question: Is your son or daughter mature enough to handle the responsibility?
Also, you’ve got to take into account how your kid will be using the smartphone. Will it merely be a tool for your kid to stay in touch with you? Or will it go beyond that?
You also have to consider the costs. A study released in April 2014 by market research giant J.D. Power and Associates found that the average smartphone owner in the U.S. spent $202 buying the device. In addition, there’s the monthly tab for calls, Web browsing and text messaging. In the U.S., the average monthly bill for cell service totals roughly $65, according to TelecomQuotes.com, but that figure excludes taxes and fees.
While it shouldn’t be done without careful consideration, experts maintain that equipping your kid with a smartphone shouldn’t necessarily be a scary proposition.
Here are six tips to help you decide whether to hang up on the idea of handing a smartphone to your kid.
1. Weigh your kid’s situation
In judging whether a kid should be given a smartphone, parents should mull factors like a child’s level of tech know-how and maturity.
“The issue is not so much about a fixed age as it is about being active in the lives of young people and proactive about communication,” says sociologist and public speaker Chauntelle Tibbals.
On the other hand, identity theft and personal security expert Robert Siciliano actually does attach a fixed age to a kid’s use of a smartphone: 16.
“Somewhere along the line, someone said 16 is a good age to allow kids to drive. I think a car in anyone’s hands can be used as a weapon, and 16 is the earliest age that weapon should be handed over,” Siciliano says. “A mobile phone is no different. In the wrong hands, a mobile phone can be deadly.”
How can a smartphone be deadly? Giving a child a phone can give the whole outside world access to them, child predators included, and social media and location check-in apps can make them an easy target.
2. Look at the benefits
Among the advantages of a kid using a cellphone are learning through various educational games and apps, and gaining a constant means of communication with his or her parents.
Free smartphone tools, such as MasteryConnect’s free Common Core Standards app, which helps students, parents and teachers identify educational standards by subject and grade, can benefit kids, says Laura Leddusire, director of operations at the Best in Class Education Center, which tutors students in math and English.
If you’re still worried, keep in mind that there are tools out there to help parents keep track of kids’ phone activities.
“There are a number of apps and features that come with smartphones and tablets that can be used to monitor and limit activity from a time and safety perspective,” Leddusire says. “Passwords and a conversation to clearly outline proper use for a child are important for parents considering a device for them.”
3. Establish limits
“Reasonable limits need to be applied to all things in life, and screen time is no exception,” says Q Beck, founder and CEO of Famigo, an educational app and game company. “Your smartphone is another tool in your parent utility belt, but shouldn’t be seen as your replacement. Use it wisely.”
To encourage wise use of a smartphone, parents should lay out some ground rules. For instance, you might decide to ban all smartphones at the dinner table or cut off smartphone use after 8 p.m.
Bob Lotter is chief inventor of the My Mobile Watchdog app, which furnishes parents with tools to control a child’s smartphone activity. Lotter says such apps let parents carve out smartphone periods and non-smartphone periods to “ensure your child is not on the phone at all hours of the day.”
However, clinical psychologist Timothy Gunn cautions that a kid’s smartphone shouldn’t be overloaded with games and apps. Otherwise, he or she will be glued to the smartphone for hours, Gunn says, and will miss opportunities to socialize with peers and adults.
Steve Woda, president and CEO of uKnow, suggests that parent and child sign a contract or create a checklist spelling out every rule regarding cellphone use. His company’s technology promotes smartphone and online safety for kids.
“Sure, almost all kids and teens will try to test whatever boundaries they are given,” Tibbals says, “but helping them learn to negotiate boundaries in a healthy way is part of the responsibility of bringing up a young person in today’s world.”
4. Set an example
Tibbals points out that you can turn a smartphone into a lesson about financial responsibility, much like you can with a bike or a car. Perhaps your kid can pay for his or her device and monthly service by mowing neighbors’ lawns or performing household chores. Given the substantial costs of smartphones, requiring a kid to put cash toward those expenses could ease the parents’ financial burden as well as teach a lesson.
“Phones don’t grow on trees,” Tibbals says, “and everyone seems to value the things they must work for at least a little bit more.”
5. Cut the costs
Woda recommends saving money on a kid’s smartphone by signing up for a family plan. Wireless carrier Sprint, for instance, recently rolled out a $100-a-month family plan that offers up to 10 phone lines, at least 20 gigabytes of shared data, and unlimited talk and text.
Woda also suggests initially buying a cheaper “dumb” phone for your kid, then upgrading later to a pricier smartphone.
“This option also allows parents to gauge how their child handles the responsibility of having a phone that allows texting and calling before they grant them the use of a smartphone,” Woda says.
No matter what kind of phone a kid has, Lotter says you should set up alerts that warn you when he or she is in danger of exceeding data caps on a smartphone.
Also in the money-saving department, Famigo’s Beck says you should invest in a durable case for your kid’s phone to guard against damage, and should look at handing down a smartphone from an older child to a younger child.
6. Examine the alternatives
Younger children very well could view a smartphone as a video or game player rather than a phone. If that’s the case with your kid, you might want to think about buying a tablet instead of a smartphone.
“They’ll appreciate the bigger screen and never miss the phone features,” Beck says.
Beck says children tend to gravitate toward tablets anyway because they’re more robust and simpler to navigate than smartphones.
“Tablets also provide children with computing power and with endless amounts of educational content at their fingertips,” he says.