IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

5 things parents should know before kids get their first phone

The author of 'First Phone' suggests parents start digital education in kindergarten.
/ Source: TODAY

"Should we get our child a cell phone?" It's a question many modern parents find themselves asking as kids get older.

Parents who might be considering purchasing a cell phone for their kids should start by asking themselves several questions.

Dr. Catherine Pearlman, author of "First Phone," a child's guide to digital responsibility and safety, told that she suggests parents consider:

  • Is there a specific need for a phone? Pearlman noted that there doesn’t have to be one, but if a child will be home alone or walking independently from school, it might be helpful.
  • How well does the child accept limitations on screen time?
  • How responsible is the child with important belongings?
  • How open is the child to learning and discussing topics around digital education? 

"Answering these questions will help parents know if a child is ready to handle the responsibility of a new phone," Pearlman said. "It also opens up the dialog between child and parent, which is important because it sets the tone for continued engagement moving forward once a phone is purchased."

Once a decision is made for a child to have a cell phone, Pearlman said parents should be aware of five specific concerns surrounding digital safety.

Digital safety concerns for kids

  1. Online predators and scams. Even adults can fall prey to scammers. They are very good at their job. 
  2. What is your child’s digital footprint? Where are they sharing data? Where do they have accounts?
  3. What social media is the child on and what are they doing on there? What content are they watching? How are they interacting?
  4. How is the child affected by social media, cyberbullying, screen time, etc.?
  5. Who is influencing your child? What are they selling? How much does the child understand that influencers are posting ads, like commercials, and are selling items, because they are paid to do so? 

Pearlman said concerned parents should have open and honest conversations with their children about digital safety.

Safety tips for a child's phone usage

  • Role play to help children understand that not everyone on the internet is a friend.
  • Create some guidelines about usage, when screen free times will be and where the phone will be charged at night (not in the bedroom).
  • Introduce the concepts of scams, phishing and predators so kids know what to look for and understand what information should never be shared.

"As children become more comfortable with their phones, I would also introduce the concepts of digital consent, which includes sharing pictures and information about someone only with permission, sexting, social media and how phones affect our mental health," Pearlman said, adding that digital education is a "lifelong process" as the digital world evolves.

Warning signs in kids with smartphones

There are several red flags parents can look for in terms of their children and their smartphones.

  • Children seem to be dropping activities they once loved or are seeing friends less than they were. "It is concerning when children change their behavior or seem to be depressed or more anxious," Pearlman said, adding it may be due to increased screen time, cyberbullying or an unsafe relationship online.
  • Lack of motivation to do anything except screen time.
  • Secrecy. "If a child is always hiding what’s on their phone or is hiding in their room while using the phone, there might be some concerning behavior."

The licensed clinical social worker and family coach said that even parents who decide their child isn't ready for a phone should teach children how to be mindful and safe on the internet.

"Chances are they already have access to the internet and social media via iPads or a friend’s phone," Pearlman said. "Kindergarten is a great time to begin digital education and slowly expand on concepts."