What I’m about to say, admittedly, falls outside conventional wisdom when it comes to kids and cell phones. It's a suggestion that will not work for everyone, and it comes with its own set of challenges. But I think it’s worth considering.
Here’s what I’m thinking:
Maybe it's a smart move for parents to give kids their first cell phone before they become teenagers.
A radical idea? Perhaps. But consider this: your average 10-year-old may be more likely to use a smartphone safely and sensibly than your average 13-year-old. There’s ample evidence that by the time kids hit puberty, their brains are programmed to seek out risks and to push toward peers and away from parents. There's an argument to be made that a 10-year-old, whose brain is not yet flooded with adolescent hormones, is in a more stable position to appreciate the risks of smartphone use than his future 13-year-old self.
There’s an additional benefit to giving a younger pre-teen a smartphone: Teaching kids how to use such a powerful device—and use it sensibly—is a long process. By starting early, you let your child internalize the basic safety lessons well before her life becomes cluttered by peer pressure and poor adolescent judgment.
Toilet training lessons, applied
After potty-training four kids, I can attest that it's easier to do with a still compliant two-year-old, than with a three-year-old who has reached the Age of Resistance. There's a moment when every toddler goes from wanting to please you to wanting to do whatever it is you don't want him to do. This is completely developmentally appropriate. Child-rearing is not a perfect science, of course, so each child reaches this point on his own timeline. If you are paying close attention, and know what's coming, you can time potty-training so it happens when your toddler is physically capable of using the toilet but still in the psychologically compliant stage. (If you've ever heard another parent brag that their child was potty-trained in a single day—this is the reason why: timing!)
When considering the ideal age to introduce a smartphone into your pre-teen's life I'd say that's as good a guideline as any: wait until she's physically capable of using it safely (10 is the minimum age for me, personally), but before she reaches her second Age of Resistance.
Balancing safety and responsibility
It's not only a good idea to carefully consider the age at which to hand your kid a smartphone, but also consider phasing it in.
I see a precedent for this in the case of the Graduated Driver’s License. Until quite recently, most states had pretty straightforward driving requirements. Once you turned sixteen and passed the driver’s test you were set loose on the road. But by the mid-1990's, researchers began noticing some unsettling statistics. The leading cause of death for U.S. teens? Car crashes. Additionally, the risk seemed particularly high in the first months after teens became licensed. Other notable factors in these accidents—like teens riding with other teens—stood out. So states began to make changes to their laws to reflect this new information.
The impact was immediate. In 2007 in Illinois, 155 teens between the ages of 16 and 19 died in automobile crashes. In 2008, that number fell to 92. Those results track with findings on GDLs [Graduated Driver Licensing] nationally. According to a Johns Hopkins University study, states with strong GDL laws have cut accidents among young drivers by 40 percent, with injuries down 38 percent.