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How to give your kid a cellphone without setting them up for disaster

If you’re a parent in this day and age, you know by now that there’s nothing strange at all about a child using a cellphone. It’s not so much a question of if kids should use cellphones; it’s a question of when.

For the many parents whose toddlers have already figured out how to unlock their iPhones (and change the passwords without telling them), you might not be surprised to hear that most kids now have their own cellphones by age 7. While this doesn’t necessarily mean this new generation is going to hell in a handbasket because of their dependence on technology — since there are a great many proven benefits of children using technology at a young age — it does mean that, as parents, we need to rethink our age-appropriate approach to cellphone use.

“I recommend parents to give cellphones to kids early — as soon as they can hold phones in their hands,” says Katya Seberson, a New York City-based learning expert. “Let’s be realistic — kids need to have technology skills to succeed in life.” Kids who aren’t ready for a cellphone with Internet access yet, like toddlers and preschoolers, can start practicing with cellphone technology by playing games on an older, Wi-Fi-enabled phone that is disconnected from the family plan.

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With that hearty endorsement, we can no longer keep our heads in the sand. Instead of trying to avoid cellphone use among children altogether, we can face this modern-day parenting issue head-on by becoming more involved in our kids’ use of technology. When it comes to safety, benefits and best practices, here’s what every parent needs to know before adding their child to their cellphone plan:

Cellphone tips for moms
Image: Karen Cox/SheKnows;Image via Getty Images

1. Safety first

“Safety first” might be a catchy slogan, but it can’t be emphasized enough. While cellphone use is encouraged, Seberson says, “Parents must also maintain firm control over the gadget. I recommend adjusting the settings of the phone to restrict certain content. The iPhone has fantastic restriction features to minimize users’ exposure to the Web.”

And let’s not forget, there’s also the practical aspect of cellphone use: A child with a cellphone is easier to keep track of when they’re outside the house. Cara Maksimow, LCSW, CPC, author of Lose That Mommy Guilt, Tales and Tips from an Imperfect Mom, told SheKnows, “For example, when I was a child, I could roam the neighborhood and knew when to be home. Now, it seems we are more careful or cautious about letting kids just go out and play. Perhaps let kids walk to a friend’s house or to a park without an adult present. Having a phone gives some sense of security that you can use Find My Phone to check in on them or for them to call you when they need to be picked up.”

2. Consider communication

We so often think of getting a child a cellphone primarily for safety — like getting picked up from a friend’s house or walking home from the park, as Maksimow mentioned — but in the same vein, a child can also use a cellphone to improve family communication. Dr. Barbara Winter, a private practice psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, specifically advocates that kids get their own cellphones during a divorce. Not only can a personal cellphone better communication with a noncustodial parent, but it can support a child’s autonomy and comfort during a tumultuous time.

“Today, cellphones are not a luxury — they are a necessity. They are a form of communication and everything else,” Dr. Winter told SheKnows. “I often recommend to my parents that children and families going through a divorce should have a cellphone. Why? Well, besides the backpack, which I deem as something the child has control over from house to house, so is the cellphone. The cellphone adds an added feature in that they themselves can reach out to their parents when they need to stay connected too, and it helps bridge that connection.”

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3. Encourage tech proficiency

When you think about the fact that technology is just another cultural language your child will need to learn to do well in both work and school, early cellphone use makes even more sense. But to ensure development and proficiency, how you teach your child to use their phone matters most of all. “The reason I encourage the use of cellphones is because kids will have to read and type to use the phone. If they want to be fast and respond well, they will have to learn how to read fast and type fast. I generally suggest having your children read signs on the road, menus, weather reports, game directions, movie listings and other daily living items. This will help motivate your children to try to understand the importance and applicability of being able to read well. It will help them tremendously with their academic development down the road,” Seberson said.

“Make sure the talk-to-text feature is disabled. If you have an iPhone, make sure Siri is off and under the password,” Seberson continued. “As parents, we like to hear our kid’s voice when we check on them. Complement that with texting — boost your vocabulary, and use longer and rarer words so kids will have to decode them. Kids will have to read to communicate with you. Additionally, ask them to text you back. That will allow you to see their spelling ability and also encourage them to type, spell and put their thoughts in writing.”

4. Teach responsibility

Like you wouldn’t get your child a pet they couldn’t take care of, don’t put a cellphone in the hands of a child who might break or lose it on their first go-round. Jeana Lee Tahnk, Top Tech Mom and family tech expert, recommends that parents consider a child’s level of responsibility before buying a new device. When assessing if her 11-year-old was cellphone ready, Tahnk asked the question, “Is [my] child responsible enough to own a cellphone and be able to keep track of it without misplacing it every day?

“This is a big digital step, and once you make the introduction, it’s hard to turn back, so making sure everyone in the family is ready, not just the child, is important.” Tahnk told SheKnows. She also recommends that parents use a new cellphone as a teaching tool to instruct kids in the ways of digital citizenship, which may include mobile manners, texting etiquette and especially awareness of sexting and online bullying.

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5. Set the rules

If you want to avoid many of the inevitable cellphone battles that are sure to come, it helps to lay a few ground rules first, Maksimow says, “Limit the use at home in bedrooms, and keep very clear the terms of having the phone. Answering the phone when Mom calls is a key rule with the phone in our house.”

And as Tahnk reminds us, one of the easiest ways to enforce cellphone rules and stop many problems before they start is by practicing what you preach. Parents set a strong example as cellphone users, says Tahnk. So if you want your child to use their cellphone for the purpose it was intended — to foster independence, communication and responsibility — you can start by modeling those digital habits first.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

unboxing YouTube channels
Image: Frank and Helena/Getty Images

Updated on 4/4/16

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