What age should I let my child have a mobile phone?

phoneQ. What age should you give a child a mobile phone? My nine-year-old daughter has been pestering me for one. I am concerned about giving her one so young because you hear about so many problems with inappropriate texts or even bullying on the phone. She wanted one for Christmas, but I managed to put her off and she got something else. But I know she is going to start asking again now in the new year. Her cousin, who she is very close to, is going to have her 10th birthday at the end of January and my daughter tells me she is expecting a mobile phone. If this is true, this is going to add to the pressure. Am I right to resist her getting a phone and at what age do you think children need one?

A. In recent years, there has been a huge increase in children and teenagers’ access to technology such as mobile phones and the internet, as well as video and computer games. In particular, the age that children start using these gadgets seems to be dropping and dropping. Where it was unheard of for a child to have a mobile phone at 10 years of age a few years ago, now it is becoming common- place.

In a recent survey reported by theonlinemom.com, the average age of gaining a first mobile phone was 11.9 years and another survey by the Personal Finance Education Group charity in the UK discovered that a large percentage of children (35 per cent) owned a mobile by the age of eight.

It is no wonder that parents feel under such great pressure to buy phones for their children.

In responding to the demands from your daughter, the first thing to realise is that you are in charge as the parent. It is up to you to decide what is in the best interest of your daughter. While, of course, you want to take into account her wishes, it is your role to take the lead in setting family rules and to establish your family’s values.

No matter what other families are doing, it is okay for you to “buck the trend” and to work out what is best for you and your daughter. Don’t let technology rule you or your family – you take charge and make sure it serves you rather than the other way round.

You are right to consider a mobile phone as a big step in your daughter’s life that brings additional responsibilities as well as some benefits. There are significant dangers such as inappropriate texting or access to unsuitable material on the internet that your daughter may not be ready to manage.

A lot depends on your daughter’s motivation to have a phone. For example, many young children want a phone simply for the games it provides or the music they can play on it, etc.

You could consider giving your daughter in the first instance a gadget that provides these benefits without a phone or internet connection.

Certainly, even when you do decide to give her a phone, you could ensure that it is not internet enabled or that it has protective software to prevent unsuitable internet access.

It is hard to be specific as to what age your daughter should get access to a phone. A lot depends on her maturity and level of responsibility.

I think you should also take into account her level of independence and whether she needs a phone. For example, when she is old enough to be walking home from school by herself or can go to the shops independently or when she can visit a friend by herself, then there may be good reasons to give her a phone as this allows you to stay in contact and serves a useful function in ensuring she is safe and well.

If you are clear that you think your daughter is not ready to have a phone yet, it can be a good idea to set a reasonable time in the future when you think she might be ready. For example, when she is 12 or when she starts secondary school or when she needs it to walk home from an activity, etc.

You have the added complication of her cousin, who may be due to have a phone in the near future. Certainly, if they are close friends and liable to want to communicate with one other, this could be a big issue for your daughter.

While, of course, you could hold firm and insist that you have different rules in your house, it might be an idea to have a quiet word with her cousin’s mother depending on how close you are.

Her mother might be equally unsure about giving a phone at a young age and the two of you could agree a consistent rule about when the two girls can have phones that suits you both.

Whatever you decide, the arrival of the mobile phone is an opportunity to teach your daughter about responsibility. Present it as a privilege that you are trusting her with, that is dependent on her being responsible and which could be withdrawn.

Take time to teach her about safe usage and discuss any potential problems such as what to do if she got an inappropriate message, etc. As a pre-teen, you can also agree that you will review her texts and messages and what she does on her phone to ensure she is safe.

If you remain unsure about what decision to make, it can be helpful to talk to other people (her friends’ parents, family, etc) who have children of a similar age to get a sense of what the norm is and what the issues are.

While you make your own decisions, this can help put things in context.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.