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How to know if your child is ready for that first phone

If you have a tween in your home, no doubt they are begging for a phone for Christmas. Or maybe you have been able to hold off and have an actual teenager under your roof without a mobile device right now. I have no doubt a phone is on the top of their wish list, too.

You’re not even immune from this if your children are all still in elementary school. In its 2016 Digital Trends Study, research firm Influence Central figured out that age 10 is the average age a child now gets that first phone. Just for comparison, the most popular Christmas gift when I was 10 was a Cabbage Patch Kid for less than $30.

There are definitely positives to parents getting their child a cellphone. Immediate communication at any time, anywhere can set minds at ease. And tracking capabilities on most devices make it much easier for moms and dads to keep tabs on their teens.

Many children could see a big advantage in learning skills by having access to educational apps and websites. Other kids may benefit from the social aspect a phone provides. These days, the only way teenagers know what’s happening in their friend world is via texting and social media. Picking up the phone and actually calling one of their buddies is as foreign to today’s teens as a cassette tape.

By now, parents should also be well aware of the many negatives that could come with kids having access to the world at their fingertips. There is no question that gadgets can be a distraction from important things like chores and homework. Plus, there is always the possibility that a smart phone could expose children to sexting, online bullying and sexual predators.

So how can you know if your child is ready for a device that likely costs several hundred dollars and puts the world — the good and the bad — in his or her back pocket? There is no magical age when a kid will have the level of responsibility or maturity needed for phone ownership. As in most parenting issues, moms and dads need to take each child’s cell hone readiness on a case-by-case basis. But there is an essential list of considerations for anyone thinking about helping their child take this big digital step.

Independence — The main factor in deciding when I would buy phones for my oldest children was whether or not they were ever somewhere without me or my husband? And for my twins, their schedules basically took them from home, to school and back home when we would then run them around to afternoon activities. It wasn’t until they were about 12 years old that they would stay after school for extracurriculars. At that point, they needed a way to contact me for various reasons, but mostly to let me know when practice was finished so I could pick them up. After taking into consideration the list that follows, we bought the twins iPhones when they were about 12-and-a-half. My 10-year old does not yet have a cell phone.

Responsibility — Think about how well your children take care of their current possessions. Do they consistently lose things like backpacks and retainers? Are they able to keep track of their favorite sweatshirt? If the answer is no to these questions, your child may not be ready to be responsible for a $500 phone. But, you could start by purchasing a less expensive dumb phone option as an introduction to mobile life.

Self-control — Take note of whether your children are able to put aside current distractions to get things done. Do they go to sleep when it’s bedtime, or stay up reading until late into the night? Do they get their homework done on time, or get distracted by the television? These questions are a good indicator of how they might act with a cell phone — the ultimate distraction.

Respect — Notice whether your children are paying attention to teachers at school or church. Does your child follow rules like "no gum in class"? If not, you may want to consider waiting a while. Kids need to be able to follow simple rules before they have to face the biggest temptation ever, to stare at a phone instead of paying attention to people and things that should be more important.

Of course, parents can always decide that while their children aren’t perfect in any of these considerations, that the kid is progressing and therefore is ready for a chance. And moms and dads need to remember they can always buy the phone, but then make a contract with their kids about usage, and set restrictions to help keep them safe.

I’ll break all that down in next week’s column.