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When and how should I give my child their first phone?

With Children’s Mental Health Week once again shining a spotlight on supporting our children and young people in their mental wellbeing, David Paton, Head of Radnor House Sevenoaks, offers advice on when and how a child should be given their first phone.

We know that smartphone use in children can have negative effects on their mental health.  In favour of time spent on their devices they forgo taking part in physical activity or being outdoors.  The World Health Organisation warns that increased screen time and a more sedentary living can lead to hyperactivity and obesity.  In conjunction with UNICEF, the WHO have developed a digital health intervention plan as a roadmap to help balance use and overuse of devices.

We also know that technology is an incredible educational tool.  Young children can learn a lot and foster relationships with family members who aren’t necessarily present. 

So, when and how should a child be given their first phone?

This question occupies the mind of most parents at one point or another as their children progress through primary school and on to secondary.  Their first phone is something of a rite of passage, similar to the first time they are allowed out on their own or even their first car.  And, while the risks might not seem quite so obvious, it is important that parents fully grasp the implications of giving their child that first device.

As a parent of three and Head of an all through independent school, I have seen every possible alternative tried and tested with a range of outcomes.  Too much restriction can result in conflict, too much leniency, misuse.  So, what is the right balance, and what do I try and enforce with my own children?

Firstly, it is important parents really understand that openness and trust are integral elements of a positive parent/child relationship.  Children need to feel heard; they need to feel respected and above all they need to feel like you trust them to make the right decisions when you are not around.  All easier said than done but by prioritising family dinner time, weekend walks, even chats over a long-distance car journey can develop a relationship with your child that is positive and built on the right foundations.

Secondly, while trust is important children also need very clear boundaries which are consistently reinforced at home.  Phones should be used sparingly and through a set of mutually agreed family rules such as, ‘no phones at the dinner table’ or ‘only 1.5 hours per day’ this approach can significantly reduce the risks.  Neurological research also shows that childhood development can be stunted if sleep is regularly interrupted and so a clear rule of, ‘no phones in the bedroom after lights out’ is a must for most families.

Finally, the age when children receive their first phone is open to debate and will depend on your family circumstances.  For those with a commute, parents might appreciate the comfort of knowing primary aged children are contactable.  For others, a later introduction might be appropriate.  Many families choose to give children their first phone around the 11th birthday or at the point at which the child moves into secondary school.  There is no right option but remember that once it has been received it will be very difficult to take away.  It’s important to understand that you are a role model; your child will be aware of your relationship with your smartphone.   Have non-negotiable rules in place around usage for the whole family and be aware of the signs of addiction or problematic smartphone usage.

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