“My seventh grader is begging for a phone. I keep going back and forth about whether I think she’s old enough,” a parent recently shared. “Honestly,” he went on, “I’m not sure I’m ready.”
“I love that you are thinking about that second part,” I responded.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, we tend to focus a lot on whether our kids are ready for new devices or apps. But unless we just plan on handing over a device and walking away, each big change for our kids is a big change for our parenting too. It’s worth asking, are we ready to support them?”
When it comes to answering the question,“At what age should I get my kid a phone?” most experts are reluctant to pinpoint a specific age. That’s because each young person and family system has their own unique needs, strengths, and vulnerabilities. There are plenty of thirteen-year-olds who do fine with their phones and plenty of sixteen-year-olds who struggle. But even as we complicate the answer to the age question, we generally continue to focus only on the kids. Are they ready for a rapidly expanding digital world? Are they ready for this kind of responsibility?
The reality is though, that phones don’t just change our kids’ lives. They change our lives too. Getting a device necessitates new conversations, new parenting skills, and new mindsets.
So, in addition to asking questions about when and if our kids are ready for new devices, let’s reflect on these questions:
Are we ready to build collaborative agreements?
It’s tempting to give our kids access to a new phone along with a comprehensive “list of things you should not do” followed by a list of consequences if they transgress these rules. It’s true that clear and consistent boundaries (especially when they prioritize mental health) and monitoring are important. But starting off using only a “control and confiscate” approach doesn’t lay the foundation for trust, communication, and collaboration that research says is essential. Instead, use a new device as an opportunity to co-create agreements that include our non-negotiable “no go” items as well as “let’s go” positive practices. This means letting kids contribute ideas, being willing to reflect on our own tech habits, and brainstorming agreements together.
Are we ready to revisit these agreements over time?
Media agreements that are set in stone tend to get cast aside quickly. Instead, treat them as works-in-progress. As we gain experience with devices, we learn quickly about both unforeseen challenges and surprising bright spots. We also continue to build skills, learn from mistakes, and seek out new platforms. This means that we need to be willing to revisit media agreements over time. Especially with new devices or apps, set a time to check in. Are the agreements helping? What have we learned? What do we need to change?
Are we ready to focus on skill building?
As kids’ digital worlds expand, they desperately need digital mentors who will help them build and practice the skills they need to manage risk and cultivate digital wellbeing. While it is tempting to assume the role of solely “on-off regulator,” this is woefully insufficient to support the complexity of our kids’ digital lives. Sure, there may be some times where simply changing content or holding a boundary helps. Most of the time, however, online challenges are complicated and require our kids to practice developing skills like emotional regulation, self-awareness, impulse control, perspective taking, conflict resolution and more.
The good news? We can often anticipate when these skills will be needed and front load conversations and practice. Handing over a device without prioritizing skill building is like sending a kid into a high performance sport with no coach and promising a steady stream of consequences for poor play. This doesn’t set anyone up for success.
Are we ready to talk (over and over again) about tough topics like online cruelty, porn, sexting, online racism, persuasive design, body image, and more?
I haven’t met a parent yet who feels fully ready to talk to their kids about online pornography or sexting. But we can’t afford to duck these issues. New devices mean expanded access to the good, the bad, and the overwhelming. Plus online dynamics often mirror and magnify offline ones, so our kids need support navigating these issues both online and offline. That’s why it is so important to ditch the lectures and replace them with frequent, honest conversations about challenging topics like online extremism, body image, relationships, and more. A new device is an invitation to activate our listening skills, and initiate brave conversations early and often.
Are we ready to catch our kid’s digital strengths?
For many families, the introduction of a device can trigger power struggles and battle patterns. It doesn’t help that many of us feel like it is our job to “hold back the tide” of toxic media onslaught. From this perspective, enjoying the positives and catching strengths might be interpreted as encouraging more screen time. But one of our jobs is actually to hold up a caring and accurate mirror to our kids. This includes mirroring back joy, strengths, and positive skills. The reality is that we can skew the reflection in either direction, either by overemphasizing the challenges or ignoring them altogether. Let’s be ready to point out persistence and creative problem solving in gaming. Thoughtful communication in group texts. Creative contributions on social media. Especially if these moments feel rare, it’s important that we catch them and mirror them back to our kids. That’s one of the ways that they grow.