person holding and taking selfie using a smartphone

Does my fifth grader “need” a smartphone?

My oldest will soon be 10 years old, and, with each year, he is becoming one of fewer and fewer kids his age with their own phone. He has known children with smartphones since he was in Kindergarten, and has expressed interest in one ever since.

Before he was nine, I wouldn’t even address the question of getting him a phone. I believe (and still do), he had no valid reason for having one, and trusted that he was always with a reliable individual (whether a teacher, relative or activity leader), who had access to a phone and my information should he ever be in trouble.

Still, I understand the desire to want to enable our kids to be able to reach us if/when they are in trouble or scared. My son is growing more independent, and if a phone could help ease some of my worries and allow him to do more on his own, it may not be a terrible solution.

This thought occurred to me last month, when my son wanted to march in our town’s Homecoming Parade with the Middle School. When I dropped him off, there was no clear adult in charge (though there were some present), and it was a loud chaotic mess of teens, floats and excitement.

I hesitated and asked my son if he wanted to stay. He said he did, and though I felt concerned about his welfare, I agreed, got back in my car and drove off to meet my husband and our seven-year-old with whom I’d be watching the parade.

I was anxious as I waited along the parade route for my son’s group to pass by. Once they did, I sighed with relief. I knew I was worried more than I needed to be. My son wasn’t alone, and he is not the type to just go off on his on. My husband went off to meet him at the pickup spot, and after my youngest and I finished watching the rest of the parade we were reunited.

Would being able to get a text from my son ensuring he was OK have made me feel better? Probably. Does this mean he now needs a smartphone? Probably not.

Having access to a phone for the purpose of contacting me or my husband is one thing. Having a phone that gives my kid access to gaming, the Internet and social media is another. Each of these areas present potential challenges to the well being of my child.

Though social media is worrisome, my nine-year-old has little interest in getting an Instagram, TikTok, or any other type of account. This can change when he is older, but for now, he seems to care little about being able to scroll through overly-stylized gram photos and spend hours watching TikTok videos. For him, the bigger desire to have a smartphone would be regular access to YouTube and mobile gaming.

My son already has a tablet with Internet access and the ability to download games. I have some parental controls set up, and I am able to monitor how much he uses this device, as he is only allowed to use it when he is at home or on the occasional family trip. He is never allowed to bring it with him to school.

Giving him a smartphone would change that. I could remove every app, but, let’s be real, kids are smart, and he could just download them himself, or ask a friend to help. I also can’t enforce any rules I may have about what he does with the phone outside of the house. If/when he gets a phone, I would need to accept that as much as I would want to, I can’t control everything. Understanding how addicting online gaming can be, in good conscious, I don’t think I could hand my son a device he could be on for several hours a day.

An obvious answer would be to just get my child a phone that is designed for kids and excludes the Internet and social media access. The challenge with those, aside from me already hearing my son deride me for even considering something so lame, is that many of these so-called kid-specific devices may cause more harm than good. Though they may lack Internet and social media capabilities, these phones often include cameras and GPS capabilities that can potentially be hacked by predators. And, while I am no nervous Nelly, I have to be honest about the reality of our modern world. The truth is a fully-loaded iPhone may be safer for my child than a phone made “just for kids.”

For now, my son seems content with the access he has. I am not super strict when it comes to screen time, and whenever I feel like something my child is playing or watching is causing stress, anxiety, or is just plain inappropriate, I take the device away.

In another year or two, I may feel better about getting my child a phone. In a few years, he will be in eighth grade, which is when many feel is appropriate to start considering giving kids a phone. Personally, I’d love to push it until high school. However, I do see the value in teaching my kids how to use social media safely over time, and not just handing them a phone out of the blue without any guidance. I mean, you wouldn’t hand your teen the keys to the car without them having a few driving lessons first, right?

Though listening to constant whining sucks, refusing to give in to my kid’s request for a phone or anything else “all his friends have” is a valuable lesson for him. In a time where making life as easy as possible for our kids at any cost seems to be the standard, I am pushing back and saying my child will be OK if he doesn’t get everything he wants.

I admit my hesitating to get my son a smartphone is because of my desire to shield him from harm as long as possible. I know once he has access to a phone and everything it offers, a bigger chunk of that childhood innocence will slip away. I realize I have to work on my own acceptance of his growing up before I can feel comfortable making a choice to give him a loaded device (in more ways than one).

When the time comes to buy, I am grateful for the many resources out there to guide me in this decision. Common Sense Media has numerous articles on how to determine if your child is ready for a phone, and I am a fan of Cyber Fareedah, an Internet safety expert who has great insight into making these decisions for your family. I also acknowledge my own expertise as a person who has been using social media for nearly 20 years, and has built up a respectable presence as a blogger. In order to be able to manage my accounts effectively, I have learned the importance of taking regular breaks and avoiding engagement in harmful discussions; skills I can no doubt pass on to my children.

Do your kids have a smartphone? What made you decide to get them one? Sound off in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Does my fifth grader “need” a smartphone?

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