Kids and Cellphones

Like so many parenting questions, there is no right answer to the question of when a child should get a cellphone. A phone is a powerful tool, so thinking through why you might choose to get a phone for your child and whether your child is ready for a phone can help you make the best decision for your family. 

Parents often hear the argument from their child that everyone has a phone. And it’s true that phone use is increasing among children. Transitions to middle school and high school are times when some parents consider getting a phone for their child. A 2016 survey of parents of 6–11-year-olds revealed that 45 percent of children got a service plan when they were 10–12 years old. 

A phone is not just a phone 

The most common reason parents give for getting their child a cellphone is to make it easier to reach their child and for their child to reach them. However, many phones can be used for more than simple voice and text. Phones can be cameras, give access to the internet, and share a person’s location. It’s important to consider these other features and how your child will use them.   

Is my child ready for a cellphone? 

Here are a few questions to ask when considering whether to get your child a cellphone: 
  • How independent is your child?  If your child spends time home alone or travels to and from school, sports, or work on their own or with other families, a phone can help you stay in touch. If there is no landline at home, a cellphone can be important for the safety of children who spend time at home alone. 
  • Does my child often lose or damage their personal items?   Phones can be expensive and it’s important to consider if your child will be able to keep track of it and take care of it. 
  • Does the tool fit the task?  Phones can be as basic as voice only or as complex as a smartphone. If you are buying a phone to be in contact with your child, keep in mind they may only need a simple phone. 
  • Is my child able to understand and stick to rules related to phone use?  Phones are fun to use! Smartphones also give children access to the internet. This can lead to a variety of issues including poor sleep, problems getting homework done, exposure to content that may be too mature, and, in older children, distracted driving.

Cellphones and radiation 

Research into whether the non-ionizing radiation from cellphones increases the risk of cancer show conflicting results. Since it is unclear if there is a link to cancer, it makes sense to limit exposure to non-ionizing radiation by using hands-free devices or speaker phone and to avoid keeping phones in pockets that are up against the body. To learn more, review the American Academy of Pediatrics’ information on cellphone radiation and children.   

Setting your child up for success 

If you’ve decided your child is ready for a cellphone or if your child already has a phone, you can help them be a successful phone user by being clear about expectations and setting age-appropriate limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Common Sense Media have resources for creating a family media use plan. These can help you create a plan for phone use based on your family’s schedule and values. 

Additional Resources 

Written by Jen McDonald, MD  

Updated April 2020