Your child’s first smartphone is a big deal for both of you. They will have easy access to the Internet and social media (even texting is considered social media), and they’ll have the ability to consume and create content there. You have much more to keep track of, difficult conversations to navigate, and their online reputation to worry about.
Are you ready? Ask yourself these four questions. If you answer “no” to any of them, it’s not time for your child to have a smartphone. Not yet.
Question #1: Am I a good role model?
Your child watches everything you do, including how you use your smartphone. You set the bar. Think for a second: In the last week, have they seen you check your email while driving? Reply to a text while eating dinner? Miss something they’ve said because you’re too busy posting to Facebook? Sleep with your phone charging on your nightstand? The adage “Do as I say, not as I do” won’t cut it this time.
To help ensure that you and your child will use your devices in a healthy, helpful, positive way, consider writing and signing a Family Social Standards Agreement together.
Unlike a tech contract — a list of rules that parents set for their kids to follow — a Family Social Standards Agreement is a list of expected behaviors that everyone in the family is expected to exhibit. One is restrictive (don’t talk to strangers, don’t post something you’ll regret, don’t bully others) and one is empowering (accept friend requests only from people you know in real life, back someone up when you see them being bullied, always share what you care about most). Your entire family signs the agreement, and everyone is responsible for helping each other live up to the standards you set together.
Question #2: Do I have the help I’ll need to coach my child?
Social media is a game that’s played on a global field. You can win or lose this game with each move you make — each post, each comment, each time you press “Send.” Your child is a rookie and if they’re going to succeed, they need you to coach them. They’ll use apps you’ve never heard of, and they may experience things that you’ve never heard of, like subtweets, finstas, or diss tracks. Regardless of how many negative experiences they have, they’ll have a hard time setting the phone down. You must step in.
Think about the monitoring you may want to do and the apps you’ll have to learn to do it well. Make sure you know where to go to learn about the latest apps before you child even knows about them. My organization, The Social Institute, has a free weekly newsletter that can help.
Prepare to have ongoing check-ins and potentially uncomfortable (but necessary!) conversations about bullying, inappropriate photos, sexting, and more. Be ready to talk about the phone, about being "social" in today's world, about the new things they've learned, about people they're talking to and videos they've seen, accounts they're following, and questions they have. This can happen while you're making dinner, driving them to practice, or just hanging out around the house.
Question #3: Is my child mature enough to handle the responsibility?
Getting a smartphone means a lot more than simply being able to text friends. What kind of responsibilities? Here are some big-ticket examples:
- Taking care of an expensive device
- Being open with you about their online behaviors
- Sticking to their data plan limit
- Protecting their privacy
- Protecting their reputation (and your family's)
- Using their new "microphone to the world" for good
- Dealing with cyberbullying
To determine if they are mature enough to handle a phone in their backpack or jacket pocket, consider the responsibilities they already have and whether they handle them successfully. For example, do they regularly follow your house rules, including being on time, communicating when necessary about their location and activities, getting their homework done, cleaning up after dinner? Does your child tend to lose things easily or forget commitments they made? Can they sympathize or, even better, empathize with others?
If you don’t think your child has been responsible with the “dumb” things, perhaps it’s not time for them to be responsible for a smart thing.
Question #4: Has my child proven that they can manage using our family device?
Giving your child access to a shared device is a great way to test their smartphone readiness. Consider whether or not they followed your guidelines: how many hours per week they could use it, where they could use it, which sites and apps they could use, how often they could text or email and with whom.
Look at what they’ve been consuming. What your child shares online, even in a text, is important, but they spend far more time looking at what other people share. Ask to scroll through their social media feeds so that you can see what they are seeing. Are they following positive role models? Do they see positive messages? Are they encouraged to be themselves or judged because they are different?
If you decide to give your child a smartphone for the holidays, you must be ready to lean in heavily. Here are a few tactical tips:
- Use Apple’s Family Sharing and Ask to Buy features. Whenever your child initiates the purchase of a download on their device, you’ll be notified on yours. There, you can review the request — whether to buy something from iTunes, like an app, book or movie, or to make an in-app purchase, like bonus game levels or ad removal — and either accept or decline it.
- Turn off group text notifications. Texting with large groups of people is especially popular with middle school students. And it means their phones are alerting them of new messages all the time. Turn off the notifications for each group individually. On iPhones, tap the “i” in the top right-hand corner of the group text and choose “Do Not Disturb.”
- Talk about the dangers of anonymous apps. Apps that allow users to sign up with fake names are especially harrowing for kids; unfortunately, they love anonymous apps. Over the summer you may have heard about the new one called Sarahah. After School and Kik are also popular. The only anonymous app that is potentially positive for your child is called TBH, which stands for To Be Honest. I spoke with my local ABC station about it in October.
- Purchase an alarm clock, a land line, and a Bluetooth speaker. This way, your child will have no excuse to keep their new phone in their room overnight. They can wake up on time, feel safely connected to friends and family, and can even listen to music streaming from their device — all as it charges in another room.
The day they get their first phone is an exciting day for your child, and it’s the start of a whole new level of parenting for you. Regardless of what you decide to do this holiday season, talk with your child as often as possible about their experiences online. The more they feel comfortable coming to you with questions and stories, the better prepared they will be to win the game of social media. Keep the dialogue going.
Laura Tierney is founder and president of The Social Institute, which teaches students positive ways to handle one of the biggest drivers of their social development: social media. By reinforcing character strengths like empathy, integrity, and teamwork, and by teaching teens and their role models (from parents to U.S. Olympians) to be their best selves on all platforms, The Social Institute is helping students “win the game of social media.” Laura, a four-time Duke All-American, Duke’s Athlete of the Decade, and former U.S. National Field Hockey Team member, recently became a mother. Game on.