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How young is too young for a smartphone? We asked the experts

It’s not easy being a parent. Balancing your child’s wants and needs with what you feel is best for them can be tricky. A particularly thorny issue for today’s parents is the question of when to give your child a smartphone. Is there a right age? How do you know that your child is ready to own a smartphone? What can you do to mitigate the dangers and how should you handle the process?

Virtually every kid wants a smartphone. The peer pressure to own one is huge. But smartphones are powerful devices that offer access to every corner of the internet, the ability to upload video and photos of yourself, and an easy way to communicate with anyone. They have great potential to enrich lives, but they can also cause serious problems, even for adults, never mind for children with less impulse control.

What’s the right age?

While Pew Research from 2015 puts adult smartphone ownership in the U.S. at 72 percent, there’s some debate about smartphone ownership among children. The average age for a child to get their first smartphone is currently 10.3 years according to the recent Influence Central report, Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today’s Digital Natives.

“Setting rules as part of a conversation with your child is going to be far less problematic in the long run.”

An average of 65 percent of children aged between 8 and 11 have their own smartphone in the U.K. according to a survey by Internet Matters. That survey also found that the majority of parents would like a minimum age for smartphone ownership in the U.K. to be set at age 10.

However, some kids are using smartphones from a very young age. One study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that focused on children in an urban, low-income, minority community suggested that almost all children (96.6 percent) use mobile devices and that 75 percent have their own mobile device by the age of four.

Related: The 5 best phones you can safely hand over to your kids’ grubby paws

“There is no age that all children should have a cell phone,” Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, told Digital Trends. “It has to do with the maturity of the child, it has to do with how the cell phone is being used, and it has to do with the parent’s ability to understand how the child is using the phone.”

The times are changing

For generations used to knocking on doors to see if friends were home and looking things up in library books, smartphones can be a daunting prospect.

“Things are changing really fast, we’re getting all of this new technology, and trying to make decisions about what’s best for our kids, but we didn’t grow up this way,” explains Dr. Rutledge. “We need to put aside the fear and try to make some judgments, not based on what we think is right in terms of what we did as a kid, but what makes sense in this environment.”

We see stories about sexting and online grooming every day, so it’s no wonder that some parents get freaked out and impose a blanket ban on smartphones, but this approach is dangerous. Smartphones are a big part of the modern world and they aren’t going away anytime soon. It’s better to start a dialogue with your child and help them to understand your fears.

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“Your job isn’t necessarily to teach your child how to use technology,” says Dr. Rutledge. “Your job is to teach your child critical thinking and responsible behavior. You don’t have to know anything about the phone to teach the values you want for your child.”

That means discussing those scary stories with your kids and explaining your fears, so they can understand where you’re coming from. You should also ask them to show you what it is they want to do on their smartphones and explain why it’s important that you know. Going over things together gives you a chance to teach them why you might not want to put your address in or grant an app access to your contacts. It’s an opportunity to model responsible behavior.

What do they need it for?

The first question to ask is what does your child need a smartphone for? Some parents will want to give their 8 or 9-year-old child a cell phone so that they can call and check where they are and so that their child can call them when he or she needs a ride home from soccer practice or the library. Your kids don’t need the latest iPhone to be able to do that — a basic feature phone will suffice.

Chances are good that by the time they’re in middle school, they’ll be pressing hard to get a smartphone.

Many of us have handed our younger children a smartphone for a few minutes in order to keep them amused while we wait at a doctor’s office or in line at the store, but there’s a big difference between handing it over for a few minutes and allowing your child to own their own smartphone without any limitations. It can be good to allow them some supervised time with smartphones when they’re younger. That gives you an opportunity to start discussing what’s appropriate and what isn’t, but you need to be careful about exactly what they have access to.

“We don’t send you out in a car without driving instructions,” explains Dr. Rutledge, “So we can’t send you out with a cell phone without training.”

Chances are good that by the time they’re in middle school, they’ll be pressing hard to get a smartphone and there’s even a danger they’ll be left out socially if they don’t have one. The important thing to remember, whenever you decide your child is ready, is to discuss some ground rules before you give them the phone.

Related: How much screen time is safe for kids?

“Get buy-in instead of handing them a dictum and expecting them to follow,” says Dr. Rutledge. “The key is conversation.”

Being open and honest from the start is important and engaging your child in setting the rules is the best way to do it.

Setting some rules

“Parents need to set guidelines upfront on acceptable use based on the age of the kid,” Clayton Ostler, Chief Product Officer for Net Nanny, told Digital Trends. “Decide what kinds of apps they can use, when they can use the phone, and how much they can use it.”

Net Nanny provides parental control software so that parents can set limitations on the content that their children have access to. It’s capable of blocking porn, inappropriate websites, apps, and games, as well as filtering out hate speech, gambling, and even profanity.

“Just because they’re intelligent or savvy enough to use a smartphone, doesn’t mean they’re mature enough to know how to use it responsibly or moderate themselves,” says Ostler.

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Opting to use parental control software is not a decision to be taken lightly. If you don’t make it clear to your child what controls you are installing and why, then you can expect resistance and even charges of snooping. Having that conversation and establishing rules from the get-go is vital. Introducing rules after your child has already been using a phone without controls is not going to be easy.

“Setting rules as part of a conversation with your child is going to be far less problematic in the long run,” says Ostler. “Introducing rules later is much tougher.”

It’s also important to acknowledge that your child’s smartphone usage is an ongoing conversation.

“Parental control software is not a virus scan solution,” explains Ostler. “You don’t install and walk away because your job is done, parental controls need interaction.”

“The worst thing a parent can do is take the phone away, because that is the portal to their social life.”

Set some rules up with your child and have them agree. They should know that you’re going to check their phone and guidelines give them an opportunity to build some trust. But if they don’t get enough sleep or their homework suddenly tanks, you have to be ready to react.

“Three quarters of teenagers have their smartphone next to the bed, and it’s either on vibrate, or it’s on. That disrupts your sleep,” Dr. Larry Rosen, Professor Emeritus and Past Chair of the Psychology Department at California State University, told Digital Trends for a previous article on smartphone addiction. “About half of the young adults in our study get up at night to check their phones; that’s a serious problem. If you don’t sleep well, not only does it make you groggy, it affects your ability to remember things, it affects your ability to learn, it affects your ability to think clearly; your brain needs to time flush out the junk it accumulates during the day.”

All of our interviewees agreed that it may be a good idea to have your child check their smartphone in at the kitchen at bed time. Banning smartphones from the dinner table is another popular rule, but you have to be prepared to set a good example yourself.

“Do we understand what acceptable use is?” asks Ostler. “We can’t tell our kids to put theirs down, but then pick ours up.”

Regardless of the rules you decide on, and whether you employ parental control software to back them up, it’s important to accept that smartphones are a part of normal life for teens now, just as they are for most adults. We all want to find a healthy balance and that means avoiding going off the deep end if something does go wrong.

“The worst thing a parent can do is take the phone away, because that is the portal to their social life,” explains Dr. Rutledge. “For the older generation it’s like someone taking away your car keys, you can’t get to your friends without them. What’s worse is that if they think you’re going to freak out and take away the phone, then they won’t ask you the hard questions.”

Trying to decide what age is appropriate for your child to get a smartphone is undoubtedly tough, but we should remember that the smartphone age is tough for children, too. We grew up without fear of our youthful stupidity being immortalized on the internet. We need to take a healthy interest in what our kids are getting up to and spell out the dangers, but don’t forget to listen.