A few things to discuss:
Who owns the phone. Kids need to understand that even if their phone was a gift, its use isn’t a given—it’s a privilege. Talk about who owns the phone and pays the bills—and what happens if the phone gets broken or stolen.
Where phone use is OK. Look at your child’s student handbook to be sure you understand what’s allowed at school—for you and for them. For example, don’t text your kids during school hours. And talk about where it’s OK to use the phone at home, and what time the phone needs to be put away, like before bedtime.
Parental controls. Install a parental control app like Smart Family and be clear that the app must stay installed on their phones in order to keep their phone privileges.
The consequences for misusing the phone. Karen Cicero, a Pennsylvania-based mom and writer focusing on parenting, let her daughter know that the rules could change anytime. “For instance, if her grades started to drop, we might restrict her device time further.”
Random phone checks—yes, they’ll happen. Early on, parents can get in the habit of asking kids to hand over the phone. An example would be, “I will ask for my kid’s phone an hour before their bedtime each night and check their texts and app use.”
That you need to officially agree. Download a sample online safety agreement.
2. Use mutual respect to gain buy-in.
Kids don’t tell their parents everything. Wanting privacy is normal, but there are times when an adult really needs to know what’s going on. To establish mutual trust, don’t sneak into your kid’s first phone to check their activity. Let them know up front that you’ll be monitoring their usage and why it’s essential to keep them safe.
Involve your kid in setting up the Smart Family app, which can help you create trusted contacts, set time limits, monitor social media and web activity, and block inappropriate apps and sites. Don’t forget to show them the fun stuff, too, like how to message you for a quick pickup from a friend’s house.
3. Talk about being a good digital citizen.
Being a good digital citizen begins with simple digital etiquette. “If your child’s old enough to carry a phone, they should be able to handle the situations that can arise from having it,” says Englander.
Social media posts, texts and other digital messaging leave a lot of room for misunderstandings and hurt feelings—especially when photos are involved. “It’s important that kids understand that pictures always involve another person’s feelings,” says Englander. “Kids should always ask the subjects of a photo how they feel about it. The major message is slow down and double think before anything is photographed, shared or posted.”
4. Talk about digital red flags.
Scammers are constantly coming up with new ways to trick people, adults included. Stay on top of trends in malware, spam and other digital scams, and pass on what you learn to your kids.
A good place to start is reviewing red flags. Explain that no one should ask them for financial information (credit card numbers, a cash app transfer, etc.) or personal information (name, age, school, address, team name, etc.). If that happens, they should tell you right away.
5. Have a plan to manage meanness.
Ask your child about social meanness situations they’ve heard about. “Then help them brainstorm how they would react if someone starts to be mean or dramatic online,” says Englander.
For example, they may say, “My mom wants me to get off the phone right now, but we can talk about this tomorrow at school.” Englander says that giving kids a cooling off period can allow the drama to dissolve on its own. If it doesn’t, let them know when to come to you for help.
6. Talk about time limits.
The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t offer a recommended maximum for screen time because the quality of what’s on screen matters, too. Evaluate your kid’s needs and schedule and then set time limits that work for them and for you.
“We need to talk to people in person. We need to focus on tasks. We need to consider different perspectives,” says Englander. “Some of that will happen online, but some won’t. To be healthy, human beings need that variety.”
7. Consider putting away devices at night.
A good rule to establish early is to put away devices at night and keep phones out of the bedroom.
“Children charging their devices in their rooms is probably the biggest mistake I see parents making,” says Pearlman. “Kids say they won’t use it or they need it for an alarm clock. But research points to them waking up all night to communicate with friends online and play games.” And those interactive activities are more disruptive to sleep than passively watching TV.
8. Schedule regular check-ins.
“Digital education isn’t a one-time endeavor that happens when kids get their phones,” says Pearlman. It should really be a lifelong process—for them and for you.
Schedule regular digital discussions with your kids to talk tech and revisit the rules in their contract. Create an online calendar invite or notification reminders on your phones. Also use some of the meeting time for fun, such as showing kids how to use health apps and online calendars.
9. Finally, make an agreement to enjoy the journey.
Despite all the challenges of a kid’s first phone ownership, their device opens up a host of benefits in communication, learning, creativity, entertainment and health.
So find ways to have fun—and balance out the life lessons. Download an age-appropriate multiplayer game where you can compete as a family. Watch some of their favorite videos together. Start a family group text for recording inside jokes, funny stories or favorite memories.
“It’s important to offer a nuanced view of technology so you can keep the dialogue open,” says Pearlman. “The internet and our digital devices offer an incredible amount of good to us all.”
It’s the first app for their first phone—Smart Family.