Four Things Your Kid Should Understand Before Getting a Phone
A Q&A with social media scientist Jacqueline Nesi.
“When can I get a phone? When can I get a phone? When can I get a phone? When can I get a phone? When can I get a phone? When can I get a phone?”
If you, like me, hear this question a little too frequently, you should be excited about today’s newsletter. I’m running a Q&A with Brown University psychologist Jacqueline Nesi, who studies how technology affects kids and and how parents can help. Dr. Nesi writes the excellent Substack Techno Sapiens, which I highly recommend if you want sage and sane advice on managing screens and technology with kids.
I reached out to Dr. Nesi to pick her brain on what parents should consider when they are thinking about getting their child a phone (perhaps because said child is INCESSANTLY HARASSING YOU). Basically: How do you know when your kid is ready? She shared four issues parents should ponder (and, ideally, discuss with their kids) as they make this decision: Responsibility, Rules, Risks and Reasons.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. (Later this week, for paid subscribers, I’ll be sharing Dr. Nesi’s excellent advice on what to do if you visit with friends or family who have very different screen time rules than you. Free subscribers, sign up for a free trial of my paid newsletter so you don’t miss it!)
Okay. I’m excited to talk about this, because I'm living this right now with my 11-year-old. He's like, “When can I have a phone? When can I have a phone?” He always centers it around age — “My 13th birthday?” — but I realize, from having read a bit about this, that it's not necessarily about age. A kid’s readiness might have more to do with their maturity level and what skills they have and what they understand. Would you agree?
Yes. So I have I have four key things that I thought we could talk through. But before we get to those, I want to give a little bit of background.
I think the question of when a kid should get a phone is so tricky, because it's both really personal — it's dependent on the kid, and dependent on the family and their values and lifestyles. But it's also really tough to ignore some of the external pressures. Other kids their age are getting phones. Maybe the schools are starting to ask kids to do things that require that they have their own devices. This is actually a really tough issue. And like everything in parenting, there really isn't one single right answer.
I always like to start by looking at the data. But I think the research, unfortunately, does not have a lot to say about this question. We don't have a lot of great data on whether there are differences in terms of kids who get phones earlier versus later, because we can't really separate out differences in outcomes — whether it's due to the actual phones that kids had at different ages versus due to differences in their families or their living situations.
One caveat with that, though, is that we do have some data that's come out recently on social media specifically, which would suggest that earlier social media use might be associated with lower well-being, particularly among girls. So I do think there's some evidence there to wait on introducing social media. But with phones, generally, I think we don't have that kind of evidence — but we do have the numbers in terms of what most people do.
The best data we have on that is from a 2021 survey from Common Sense Media that's nationally representative. And that suggests that 42 percent of kids have a phone by age 10. By age 12, it's 71 percent. And then by 14, it's 91 percent, which seems which is higher than many people expect. I will say also that this data is coming right off of Covid. And just anecdotally, I've heard of screen fatigue from families recently. So I'm curious if that age will go up a little bit. And things like the Wait Until 8th campaign — I don't know if you've heard of that, but it aims to encourage families to wait.
That makes sense. I mean, during the pandemic, parents needed kids on screens so much more, because among other things, many of us had to work in the same house as our kids.
Totally. And I think a lot of the rules or limits that people had in place before the pandemic by necessity went out the window. And now, a lot of people are in this really tricky phase of trying to figure out how to regain control — to figure out, what's the new normal going to be like now?
Yes, it’s so hard. You mentioned that there is a bit of emerging data on the effects early social media use. Can you tell us a bit more about those studies?
There's one in particular that I'm thinking of that came out this year that I actually wrote about for my newsletter, this huge dataset from the UK. It's all [based on] self report [data], and as with all data, there are some issues with it. But it's one of the bigger and I think more robust studies that has come out on this. What they found is essentially that there may be sensitive periods for exposure to social media for adolescents — times when they may be more negatively affected by it based on their self-reports of well-being. And it varied a little bit between boys and girls. But the basic idea was that there was this one developmental window of sensitivity right around the early days of puberty for boys and girls. So for girls, it was like 11 to 13. And for boys, it was 14 to 15. It’s not conclusive, but I think it's enough, along with some of the other evidence, to suggest that it's worth considering delaying social media use. I mean, for most social media platforms, 13 is the legal minimum age. Wait at least until 13.
It's interesting though that with boys, you might even want to be delaying it further, because of their puberty timing.
Yeah. Really interesting.
Might be tough, though.
I know. Exactly. And that's why I'm not ready to say that you have to be delaying it.
So that's the background. And then I have four things that I think would be useful for kids to understand before they get a phone. They are four Rs: Responsibility, Rules, Risks and Reasons. So I'll go through each of these.
Awesome. Thank you.
So the first thing is, do they understand what it means to be responsible with a device?
In some ways, I feel like, no kid is ever really ready for a phone — no adult is really ready, even, to have that kind of access to people and information. So I think it's a little bit of a tough way of thinking about it to say, “Are they ready?” But I do think it's worth thinking about whether they understand the value of responsibility, and specifically, digital responsibility.
First, we can think generally about things like: Does my child lose things often? Or are they generally pretty good with their possessions? Do they do what they say they're going to do, or are they kind of forgetful? Do they generally show good judgment, or are they super impulsive? Those kinds of things.
You can also look specifically at how they do with other devices. Presumably, most kids, before they get a phone, have had some access to TVs or iPads or a device from their school. And the question is, do they understand what it means to be responsible with a device? Do they follow the rules? Do they stop using it when screen time is over? Do they ask before downloading new apps or watching new things? Do they come and talk to you if they come across something that maybe they shouldn't have on YouTube? Those are all pieces of digital responsibility.
Thank you for being specific about the kinds of things you mean, because I feel like the concept of “responsibility” — it's so broad.
I know, it is broad. And I think the general responsibility things are important — are they losing things all the time, like that kind of stuff. But I do think some of that doesn't always transfer completely. Because the digital world is still really different than anything kids have experienced in the real world. There are some specific skills that come along with that.
Okay, so then number two: Do they understand the rules around phone use? Of course, this means that you need to decide what the rules are. I would suggest doing that over the course of many conversations, and really involving them in that process. Maybe you are coming up with some ideas for rules separately, and then you're discussing it together. Maybe you're writing things down, having it all in one place before they actually get the phone. And just thinking about some categories of what those roles might look like.
They could be things like: times of day when the phone could be used; where the phone is allowed and not allowed to go; what's the process for downloading new apps or getting new stuff on the phone; what happens if they lose or break the phone. That's probably a good thing to discuss beforehand, because it's likely to come up.
And then one of the most important things is: What are they allowed to do on the phone? Will social media be allowed? That is a good thing to make sure that they understand before they get the phone, because if they're assuming that they get the phone, and then they immediately have access to Snapchat, and that's not what you had in mind, you're setting yourself up for some challenging conversations.
My husband and I were talking about this the other day — like, Oh my God, when they get a phone, that doesn't mean they automatically get to use everything, right?
It's funny how many parents I’ve talked to where that hasn't occurred to them — that they could get [their kid] a phone but not allow social media. When your kid gets a phone, that's the perfect time to have more restrictive policies in place. And then you can always loosen things up over time. But kids are pretty willing to agree to anything before they get the phone.
That's true. I'm curious, do you consider YouTube a form of social media?
That's a good question. I would put it in the same category as social media, from a definitional perspective. I think about social media as any kind of digital tool that allows for some kind of social interaction and for user-generated content.
But when it comes to the actual practicality of how kids are using it, versus how they're using other social media, I would say it's a little different. I think it's really rare for kids to be getting super involved in the comment sections of YouTube, or even creating their own videos. Some kids do that, but that's not as common. So I would think of YouTube a little more as almost like watching TV, where it's more like passive entertainment. Obviously, it still requires a lot of monitoring and being careful, because there's a lot of stuff on YouTube that kids probably shouldn't be seeing.
Yes. Okay, that's helpful.
Ready for number three? Number three is, do they understand the potential risks of a phone and also what to do about them if they encounter them? Kids need to understand any concerns that you have as a parent about them having a phone, and why you have those concerns, and then what you're going to do together to address those concerns.
Many parents are worried that kids will make a mistake, and that it'll be hard for them to walk it back — like maybe they say something inappropriate in a text message. So maybe you'd make a plan to monitor some of what they're sending in their texts. Maybe you tell your kid that they should assume that their parents’ friends are reading their texts, too, so that they're a little more careful about what they say.
Another example of a risk you might share is that you're worried they’re going to be spending too much time on their phone and getting distracted from other things that you want them to be doing. You could talk about how you might set screen time limits in order to prevent that. Or maybe they're not allowed to use the phone at certain times a day or in certain places.
Another risk may be accessing or being exposed to things that they shouldn't be — to stuff that's inappropriate for them. For that, maybe you'd set up some content restrictions. On iPhone, it's called Family Sharing. And for Google/Android, it's Family Link.
Another risk would be stranger danger. Talking to people that they don't know or getting contacted by people they don't know. For that, it's good to make sure they know how to block a number if it's from someone that they don't know. And you could also show them how to add their number to a no call list for spam calls.
You mentioned text message monitoring. I'm wondering how you recommend handling that. If you do want to be monitoring your kid’s texts, I imagine you want to be transparent about that with them? I'm always nervous about where the line is between respecting my child's privacy and making sure they don't get into trouble.
Yes. 100%. This is such a common thing that people run into. I actually have a newsletter post on this. With this, you're really trying to balance your kid’s independence and privacy with their safety.
I think the very first thing, like you said, is just making sure that it's an open conversation. You don't want to be doing any spying or that kind of thing. You really want to make sure that they know that it's going to be happening and how it's going to be happening. So maybe you'll do some spot checks of their phone. Or maybe you'll sit down and you'll occasionally look at their phone together. I don't think it's something you have to do, necessarily, but I think it can be a good idea, when kids first get phones, to help them remember that other people's parents might be doing that. That the things that they send, and the things they do, aren't always as private as they feel.
Then, of course, you need to figure out what you'll do if you come across something that you don't like. What is the plan? As long as you establish it in advance, you provide rationale — that it's your job to keep them safe, and that this is something that we're going to try to start, and we can always reevaluate later — I think that it can be one piece of an effective plan.
That makes sense. And then what’s the fourth thing kids should understand before they get a phone?
The last thing that kids would want to understand before they get a phone is their reasons for wanting a phone. Why do they want a phone? Is it because they're feeling left out? Is it because they want to be able to play a certain game with their friends? Or is it because it's kind of a status symbol at that age? Is it just for convenience, so they can call you when they need to be picked up?
There are two reasons for doing this. One is that, thinking through those reasons, there may be alternatives to a phone that serve that same purpose. Maybe they can play that game that they want to play on a computer, or if they really just want to do basic calling and texting, maybe they can use a flip phone.
The second piece is that I think it can help set the stage for learning to use the phone more as a tool. So really thinking about why they're using it at certain times. How is making them feel? What do they and don't they want to be using it for? I think that it establishes more of a mindful approach to tech habits. That's a good one to establish, even from an early age.
Yes. And it’s interesting to think about the fact that your kids might have reasons for wanting a phone that don't actually require a phone.
It’s interesting to hear what kids have to say about that, because I think some kids will be very upfront that “all my friends have one and I want one” and it does become a bit of a status thing. But I think it could be useful for them to just to start thinking about those things.
One unrelated thing is that it maybe worth having parents consider whether they themselves are ready for their kid to have a phone. I feel like that is also an important piece, because it does create a lot of new challenges and new considerations. It's worth parents going in sort with their eyes open, knowing that there may be new things to deal with.
Right. Absolutely. This is really, really helpful. And with all of these issues, it sounds like you want to be involving your child in these conversations before you make the decision to get them a phone or not?
Yeah, that's such a good point. I think there are some pieces that you may evaluate separately — like responsibility. But yeah, the goal is to have it be as collaborative as a process as possible. Because that's really the goal: Once they have the phone, it's an ongoing conversation. It's always a dialogue. It's something where they're coming to you if they have questions, or if things aren’t going well. And it's something where you have, from the beginning, clear expectations and rules around it, where you’re openly talking about it.
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Again, later this week, paid subscribers will hear more from Dr. Nesi when she helps to address the question of what to do if you visit with friends or family who have very different screen time rules than you.
I’ve got some fun news: I just learned that my book How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes won a gold medal in the 2022 Living Now Book Awards! These awards “celebrate the innovation and creativity of newly published books that can help us improve the quality of our lives,” and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
For last week’s New York Times Well newsletter, I tackled the topic of HEMORRHOIDS, because no topic is off limits for me, apparently. For tips on preventing and treating these horrible afflictions, read my piece.
So helpful! Thank you