Smart phones are like any tool in modern society: They can be helpful if used safely and appropriately—or harmful if used incorrectly or too much.
This means parents who give their child a phone must also work with them on how to use it best.
“You wouldn’t give a child a lawnmower and send them out to mow a lawn without any kind of instruction,” says Mari Radzik, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Children need scaffolding. It’s up to parents to provide that.”
At a time when experts are warning parents about the dangers of social media, parents should roll out phone privileges with a set of clear rules governing:
When the child can use the phone
What sort of content the child can access on it
What type of information it’s OK to share, and what isn’t, such as easily identifiable information and explicit photographs
How much phone or screen time the child gets each day
Dr. Radzik says these rules are meant as general guidelines since they likely will differ for every family.
There is no hard and fast rule about when it’s appropriate to give a child a phone. What works for one family may not necessarily work for another.
Many families introduce cell phones for kids in middle school—sometime between the ages of 10 and 12. Still other families may ease their way in, with smartwatches or other accessories that enable limited communication with parents only.
Whenever parents are ready to give their kid a phone, Dr. Radzik recommends coming up with clear rules about the phone and compiling them in a contract that clearly spells out expectations regarding usage early on. She added parents should review terms of the agreement regularly to make sure their child understands what’s at stake.
“Parents need to have thoughtful discussions about the implications of giving an 8- or 10-year-old a phone,” says Dr. Radzik. “Whether you lock certain things on the phone, you limit screen time or the phone goes back to you at night—you need to administer it with some degree of judiciousness.”
Cell phones connect kids with each other, with the outside world, and of course, with mom, dad and other trusted adults.
In general, young people use phones to explore the Internet to seek information, make social connections and sync up with emotional support. Dr. Radzik notes that some kids—children who identify as queer and kids who are neurodivergent, for example—also lean on cell phones to find community.
“Kids use technology to find their place in the world,” she says. “Finding your tribe is important and when you’re able to do it, it can be powerful.”
Most of the dangers associated with cell phones revolve around social media.
In May 2023, both the U.S. Surgeon General- Opens in a new window and the American Psychological Association- Opens in a new window issued warnings about teens and social media, effectively sounding the alarm for parents to be mindful about how and when their children interact with others online.
Specifically, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murphy said social media can expose kids to cyberbullying and content that promotes eating disorders and self-harm. Social media also can impact exercise and sleep habits.
Stephanie Marcy, PhD, a clinical psychologist in General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, added that cell phones bring potential for exposure to graphic content that is developmentally inappropriate and potentially traumatizing for kids, as well as easy access to people who may have malicious or harmful intent that pose great risk to children.
Dr. Marcy says cell phones can make the toughest parts of adolescence even more difficult.
“Before social media, even if a child was struggling socially or being bullied at school, it was much easier to compartmentalize—once they left school, they could find respite at home and detach from the negativity,” says Dr. Marcy. “However, with social media, there is exposure 24 hours a day, seven days a week to potential bullying, ostracization and rejection. Kids can log on any time of day to see that others are making hurtful or threatening comments, teasing them or, sometimes worse, just completely ignoring them.”
Monitoring apps such as Bark, Qustodio and NetNanny can make phones safer. It all depends on how parents choose to set up the apps and work them into the family’s phone use protocols.
Often these apps work like spies; once downloaded, the apps upload copies of text messages and emails and browser histories to a parent dashboard. Parents can set monitoring apps to alert them about keywords such as “suicide” or references to self-harm. These apps can also place time limits on screen time and filter for certain content.
While monitoring apps can provide parents with a comprehensive picture of what their children are doing online, Dr. Radzik notes they also can create trust issues if kids don’t know their parents have installed them.
“When young people have parents who are tracking them but don’t tell them until they confront the kids and say, ‘Why did you do this?’ it can become a control issue and a real point of friction,” she says.
Dr. Radzik suggests that parents who use monitoring apps be prepared to have constructive conversations about landmine issues as they arise, so as not to create an environment of shame. “As therapists, we like to tell young people, ‘Any time you have a question we’ll tell you straight up and hope you understand it more,’” she says. “That approach works for parents, too.”
Adolescents are notoriously rash—biologically, the impulse control mechanisms in their brains are still developing until they turn about 25 years old. This makes it especially important for parents to look out for certain key dangers as kids begin to incorporate cell phones into their everyday lives.
“Since children and adolescents are more likely to be driven by emotions than by rational thought, Parents can do things to help their child avoid trouble. For example, they can walk their child through realistic hypothetical scenarios and guide them on what to do if in that situation,” says Dr. Marcy.
An example: If someone sends you an inappropriate photo, don’t forward it to anyone. Even forwarding explicit photos can be considered “sexting,” which falls under child pornography and sexual exploitation laws in California.
Then, of course, there is screen time usage. The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend less than two hours of screen time daily for kids ages 5 and up, but in recent months the organization has moved away from a specific number of hours, because the reality is that most kids spend far more than two hours a day on screens, and not all screen time is equal.
Dr. Radzik says if a child is “always” looking at a screen or refusing to put the device down and experience life, it could be a problem (and possibly a case of addiction).
Another key danger: heightened anxiety. If kids appear uncharacteristically stressed or depressed, they might be experiencing bullying or another potentially harmful encounter on the phone.
“Parents need to be mindful and aware of kids’ behavior by being attuned to them,” she says. “Does the child seem more dramatic? More curious? Isolating more? If you see any change in behavior, it’s a good idea to say, ‘I’m worried you’re spending so much time on [your phone].’ I think it’s OK for parents to talk to kids about this.”