Peer pressure for smartphone ownership is happening at ever-earlier ages. You don't want to leave them out of the loop. But you also don't want to buy into the madness. How to steer that middle course?
Our children see phone ownership as a way to belong - and they’re not wrong. Studies show that over half of kids have their own phone by age 11. In some demographics, the starting age is even younger.
The peer pressure can be intense, and experts (and parents) agree that it can start as early as the lower primary school years.
The 2020 Growing Up Digital Australia study found 80% of 5-17-year-olds owned at least one device, while the average child owned three.
So if your 12-year-old insists “but everyone has one, Mum!” she’s not necessarily exaggerating. And if she tells you you’re ruining her life - adolescent code for being left out socially - there’s probably some solid evidence there as well.
Family advocacy expert Justin Ruben, co-founder of ParentsTogether, has a daughter that age too. And while he and his partner are still agonising over whether to give in to the pressure, he gets that social exclusion is a very real thing for phone-less kids.
If your 12-year-old insists “but everyone has one, Mum!” she’s not necessarily exaggerating. And if she tells you you’re ruining her life - adolescent code for being left out socially - there’s probably some solid evidence there as well.
“It’s not that she wants to be on TikTok, it’s that she feels she’s being cut out of the loop,” he said. “Her friends have phones and are texting each other.”
But as many parents can testify, simply having a phone doesn’t guarantee a smoother ride socially. Social media can be a great way for friend groups to connect. But equally it can be devastatingly effective at splintering friendships and isolating children further.
In the US, it’s not uncommon for parents to band together to form local groups that pledge to hold off phone ownership til Year 8. It can be an effective way of slowing the smartphone arms race that entraps so many families.
But is there something magical about Year 8, or the start of middle school or high school, that makes phone ownership safe for every child? Definitely not (although you can bank on the pressure really ramping up at that point).
Maturity, not age
Experts like Family Zone cyber expert Dr. Kristy Godwin agree that maturity, not age, should not be the primary determining factor.
Her advice to parents?
1. Consider their emotional responsibility before buying them a phone. You’re giving them a powerful tool that can do much more than take and receive phone calls. With a phone, they can create and receive text messages, images, and videos - and these can be easily and quickly distributed online, screenshot or uploaded onto other websites.
They can potentially post, or distribute embarrassing or incriminating photos/videos/messages. With a phone, kids’ online mistakes or errors in judgement will have digital DNA attached.
2. Is a "dumbphone" (one that doesn't connect to the internet) a better option? If they need to be in touch or if the phone is purely for safety reasons this may be your best choice.
3. Are they responsible with their other belongings? What consequences should be established from the outset if their phone gets lost or broken?4. Can they adhere to rules and boundaries? Among the most worrying news from the Growing Up Digital study was the finding that one-third of Aussie kids are going to bed with a smartphone or other device every night - despite overwhelming evidence of the harms from screens in bedrooms, ranging from sleeplessness to the heightened risk of grooming by predators.
Most importantly, parents need to set up firm rules about how, what, when and where the phone can be used. Consider requiring your child to agree to a new phone contract like this one - developed by Family Zone cyber experts - and installing parental controls to actively monitor their usage and enforce limits.
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