4 Things to Know Before Getting Your Child a Cell Phone

Flickr user Candace Nast

Backpack – check. Lunch box – check. Cell phone – what? You may not believe it, but a cell phone has become just as much of a school necessity as a backpack and number two pencils for many kids. And while the idea of getting your elementary school student or tween a phone may sound like ludicrous, consider this – phones aren't just for fun; parents are getting them for their kids in order to keep in touch with them after school and during "open lunch" periods.

"Schools are issuing technology a lot, and technology is in our kids' lives much younger and much quicker," shares Janell Burley Hofmann, author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up. "We have seen that shift just in three years . . . that it is just ever present and it is not really an option to avoid it all together."

But before running out and buying your child a top of the line (or even basic) phone, families must consider what's right for them. Before giving her 13-year-old son a phone, Janell created an 18-point iPhone contract outlining how the phone could be used. The contract went viral almost immediately after she posted it. "I just wanted to have these points in place," Janell says. "Then over the years, as I saw my son really integrate the technology into his life in a healthy way, those points could loosen up while still having the core philosophies behind them."

"I think it is part of the health and wellness conversation right now and we want to have healthy habits with technology right now."

So just what are the key points families should consider before giving their kids phones? Read on to see Janell's advice.

4 Questions to Ask Before Just Handing Them a Phone
POPSUGAR Photography | Lisette Mejia

4 Questions to Ask Before Just Handing Them a Phone

There are probably 1000 questions running through your mind, but before going over texting and talking plans, there are some more important questions you need to ask yourself before giving your child a phone. A phone isn't going to solve all of your family's problems, and, in fact, it can exasperate issues that already exist.

"It is really imperative that we are looking at the big picture for our child," Janell Burley Hofmann says. "Take the device out of it and basically go through that evaluation before we introduce the phone. What we don’t want to do is introduce something like a smartphone that is going to cause more struggle for a family. We want to make sure there is a certain level of readiness in our child, and it sounds a little idealistic, but we want our kids to have success with the technology."

So how do you know if your child is ready? Hofmann says parents need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • How are their grades?
  • How is their behavior?
  • How are they interacting with the other technology in our lives, whether it is a computer game or video game system, or maybe an Ipod or an Ereader or something like that? We should be asking if they have a healthy relationship to this already.
  • Are they doing what they're asked, whether it is chores or contributing to the family system in some way?

She says parents need to thoroughly assess their answers to those questions and determine "what is working in these areas and what isn’t. And if I do introduce the phone, what are some of the boundaries I am going to set so that we have success and we don’t have struggle."

Determine Your Universal Rules
Flickr user Candace Nast

Determine Your Universal Rules

Hofmann's 18-point contract is packed with rules that could easily work for any family. Rules such as "I will always know the password," "Do not text, email, or say anything to someone that you would not say out loud with their parents in the room," "Do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else's private parts," and "Keep your eyes up. ... Wonder without Googling." But each family each family needs to determine the rules that will make them feel the most comfortable day in and day out.

"We all know the golden rule, so that certainly would apply universally to technology," Hofmann says. "Again, not that our kids won’t make mistakes and that they will be perfect with it, but that there is some guiding principle that you are responsible for what you say over the technology. I think some of those principles of health and wellness of how we treat others can be universal."

Other such rules can include the hours the phone can be in use, where it should be put during off hours, who has access to it, and who is responsible for it should it break, become waterlogged, or end up lost.

To help determine your own family contract, Hofmann's website offers a free service that actually creates a contract based on your direction. It's a great place to start.

Agree to a Monitoring Process
POPSUGAR Photography

Agree to a Monitoring Process

Rule number two in Hofmann's contract states that mom will always know the password to the phone, but that's only the beginning of the monitoring process.

"I don’t think a 10, 11, 12-year-old needs a whole bunch of privacy and a whole world to themselves that a parent can’t access," Hofmann says. "The way I use it in the book is that when we were growing up, we might have put a keep out sign on our door, but that didn’t mean our parents could never enter the room."

For elementary school students who have their own devices, Hofmann suggests sitting down with them and using the device with them. If they want to join Instagram, do it together. Scroll through their feeds and discuss what they're seeing — what's appropriate and what isn't. In doing so, you lay the foundation for them to gain more independence as they mature.

For older kids — tweens and teens — Hofmann suggests keeping tabs on your child's online and phone life, just as you would if the phone didn't exist. You'll want to know how they're hanging out with online, who they speak to/text with, where they're going, who's going to be there, etc.

"While we might not sit down with our teenagers in the living room and listen to every conversation they have in person, we still have an idea of what their interests are, where they hang out," she says. "So we want to have that same sense of being in tune online — what apps do they like, what social networks do they like, who are they interacting with."

Know How You'll Discipline
POPSUGAR Photography

Know How You'll Discipline

Rule number 18 in the contract states, "You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You & I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together." But before handing over the phone, it's important for families to decide how they'll handle broken rules and "mess ups."

"If we remove this device, we remove a lot of the communication and a lot of convenience," Hofmann says. "So I think that there is a way that we can maybe set time limits."

For older kids, their phones become their lifelines for telling parents when they need to be picked up after school, if after-school practices are being changed or cancelled, etc. So by taking the phone away, you could be hurting your child — and you — more than helping.

Rather, Hofmann suggests focusing on the social component, "taking it away earlier in the night or taking it away on weekends, a time when he doesn’t need it for a function." Parents have to decide what makes the most sense for their family, but keep in mind how phones are used these days.