Does your child want a smartphone? Here’s what to consider

Kerry D’Ortenzio allows her daughters, from left, Olivia (12), Faith (17) and Mia (15) to use their smartphones within her sight after 6 p.m. in and around the kitchen. Her daughter Reese (9, who’s not in the photo) doesn’t have a phone yet. Photo by Ricl D'Elia.
Kerry D’Ortenzio allows her daughters (from left) Olivia (12), Faith (17) and Mia (15) to use their smartphones within her sight after 6 p.m. in and around the kitchen. Her daughter Reese (9) who’s not in the photo doesn’t yet have a phone. Photo by Rick D’Elia.

In the past year, my almost 11-year-old daughter has been asking the same question repeatedly: “Can I get a cellphone?”

It’s a universal conundrum for parents of tweens; it’s a tough call to determine when a child is mature enough to own a one.

There are advantages to holding off: Doing so can minimize distractions, encourage more face-to-face interactions, safeguard children from predators and help prevent online bullying and sexting.

On the other hand, cellphones offer quick communication with your child,  especially in an emergency. They allow kids access to instant information and can help an introverted child to feel less alone.

Surprising research

About 60 percent of parents let their children 8 to 12 have cellphones, according to a 2012 survey by the National Consumers League. The survey cited ages 10 and 11 as the “sweet spot” for cellphone ownership: 60 percent were 10 or 11 years old when they received their phone; 15 percent were 12, and 20 percent were only 8 or 9 when they were allowed to have a cellphone.

Although research shows parents are continuing to buy phones for children at younger ages, Phoenix child psychologist Dina Reimer says, “Just because a parent can buy (his or her) child a phone doesn’t mean he or she should.”

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to deciding when to provide a tween child the privilege of having a phone,” Reimer says. She encourages parents to ask these questions:

• Does my child really need a cellphone at this time?

• Would it help me as the parent for my child to have a phone?

• Is there a need for a phone based on any social (connection with friends), emotional (anxiety) or logistical reasons (clubs, sports, carpooling)?

• Can my child handle the responsibilities of a phone and follow age-appropriate rules?

• Does my tween have enough self-control to take care of a phone (not repeatedly lose or break it) and use it appropriately (leave it in backpack during class, etc.)?

• As a parent, am I prepared to implement reasonable limits on cellphone use?

Reimer, who is the mother of two teenagers, generally recommends parents “wait as long as they possibly can — ideally middle school, age 11 or 12.”

For younger kids,  phone use should be minimal, only to contact a parent in emergencies.

Options for parents

Stacie Gorder of Scottsdale opts for an “in-between option” for her daughter Ava, 10, and son Cash, 8.  She chose the GizmoGadget, a smartwatch that allows for texting and calling a limited number of people.

Gorder loves that she can set up 10 people Ava can call or text from her Gizmo watch, and that it has no internet-surfing option.

Safety is important for parents, and Gorder especially likes the Gizmo watch’s GPS feature that allows her to see where her kids are at all times. It comes in handy when the kids are riding their bikes, she says.

Phoenix mom Kerry D’Ortenzio, mother to four girls, wasn’t opposed to letting her daughters have cellphones when they entered seventh grade. The primary impetus for her decision was when her oldest daughter took a weeklong school trip.

The cellphone comes with firm rules about usage. D’Ortenzio’s daughters aren’t allowed to use smartphones or an iPod Touch out of her sight. She also supervises her girls’ online activities; they can access their devices in the kitchen at 6 p.m.

Melissa Belle, a Scottsdale resident and mother of three girls, thinks there are legitimate reasons for children as young as 9 or 10 getting a phone, including “children of divorce going between two homes” or “kids dropped off at activities where pickup times vary.”

Still, Belle hasn’t decided when her daughters will get cellphones. Age 10 “is still a firm no for a cellphone,” Belle says, adding she always knows where her daughter is and who she’s with, and she always has a way to get in touch with her.

However, when her daughters “enter into situations where a cellphone is an asset instead of an unnecessary distraction,” Belle says she will re-evaluate her decision. During this in-between stage, she allows her daughters to access an iPad and iPod Touch for games and a camera.

Decision time

It’s impossible to ignore the pulse of our digital world. Everywhere we look, people are focused on their phones, whether it’s at a restaurant, in the grocery-store line or at home. Children find it increasingly difficult to resist the temptation of a cellphone.

Reimer encourages parents to “recognize the reality” of the digital world and place limits wisely. She also urges parents to be positive role models.

“Demonstrate to children that sometimes we have to put the phone down!” she says.

My daughter will keep asking, I suspect, for a cellphone. She’s even hinted it would be a great birthday present. But I think, for now, I’m satisfied with my inclination to wait. She may feel ready for the responsibility, but I’m not.

The bottom line? Every family must decide what works for them.