Buying Your Teen a Smartphone for Christmas? Don’t.

Our kids’ lives are full of progressions: from crib to “big kid” bed, from tricycle to bicycle, and from learner’s permit to driver’s license. We use phrases that mark these milestones: when they sleep in their “own bed,” when they ride their “own bike,” and when they get their “own car.”

But in the digital age, kids face a new suite of technological progressions: from digital media, to tablets, to a dumbphone, and then eventually to a smartphone. As in the case of a new bike, sometimes we buy things for kids and give them full ownership. And many parents have witnessed their teen’s excitement in unboxing their “own phone.”

But I think smartphones call for a different approach. Here’s an alternative route.

Instead of giving a teen their “own phone,” it may be better to speak of the smartphone in terms of a gift, on loan, in the form of an experiment. The phone is purchased by, owned by, and all monthly services are paid by, mom and dad. This arrangement is made clear from the outset. This phone is, and will remain, mom and dad’s phone. The parents lend it out to the child, per agreement, as an experiment.

And since the smartphone is an open experiment to test teen maturity and responsibility, we can then set clear expectations in a written contract to cover a few baseline rules on content, apps, personal behaviors, and family engagement.

At a bare minimum, a contract will make statements like:

  • This phone does not go into the bedroom. While at home, the phone stays in the living room (or in a central charging location).
  • This phone is charged in mom and dad’s room from 7pm to 7am.
  • This phone is not to be jail-broken or hacked.
  • This phone is for limited apps and no new apps will be added without parental approval (something Apple makes relatively easy).

When considering violations of the agreement, you can set consequences out clearly. For example: on the first violation, dad takes back his phone and deactivates it for one week. On the second violation, dad takes back his phone and deactivates it for one month. And on the third violation, dad takes back his phone and the smartphone experiment comes to a halt.

A contract like this will be unique to each child and you’ll need discernment on what exactly each child needs to hear. But all of these negotiations are made possible because of language you use from the start. No, we did not buy our teen his or her “own phone.” We are conducting a trial, an experiment to see if our teen is mature enough for such a powerful technology.

This approach puts the burden on the teen, and gives you opportunities to talk about what is and is not working as the teen learns to navigate such a complicated new landscape. This framework also gives you an “out” clause if the experiment explodes, or even a “wait” clause if you need time to rethink digital media in their lives.

So if you think your teen is ready for a smartphone, don’t buy them one for Christmas. Buy yourself a redundant new phone for Christmas and lend it out to them. Love them and guide them through this powerful life progression. Like bicycle training wheels and parking-lot driving lessons, give them the tools they want with the safeguards they need.

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