And why the entire family’s tech use plays an important role.

By Real Simple
Updated September 25, 2015
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Any parent of a middle school-aged child knows giving them a cell phone extends far beyond the purchase at the Apple store. On this week’s episode of “The Labor of Love,” host Lori Leibovich, who recently made the decision to give her 11-year-old son a smart phone, talks to Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, and Janell Burley-Hofmann, a mother of five and author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing Up, about how to manage a family in our increasingly digital age. Below, their top tips for giving your children their first cell phones.

1. There is no magic number when it comes to age. Everybody wants a clear-cut answer, but it will be different for every child, says Burley-Hofmann. “Just because my oldest [child] got his first smartphone when he was 13, I’m going to assess the needs, time and place, cost, behaviors and tendencies of each child,” she said. Parents should also consider their child's workload, contributions to the family, and how they currently interact with other technology.

2. Be clear and intentional about what the phone is for. Be deliberate in your decision to give your child a phone, and make sure there is a level of digital mindfulness, says Burley-Hofmann. Consider creating a contract that outlines what the phone will be used for, which you can constantly revisit as your children grow and their needs begin to change. Talk openly about what the consequences will be if the phone is used inappropriately, adds Steiner-Adair. As a parent, consider whether pressure (from both your child and other parents) is affecting your decision.

3. Begin parenting the phone long before its purchase. Even before they’re given a cell phone, kids are likely using devices equipped with games, apps, and social media networks. The phone itself is often the least-used component of a device, so make sure the conversation surrounds its other functions, too—and begins as soon as these other devices are in use.

4. Consider the tech behaviors of the entire family. It’s not just the kids who are becoming addicted to their screens. Technology is taking over the entire family system, and many parents are in denial about how our phones have outsmarted us, says Burley-Hofmann. Reflect on what you’re modeling as a parent: Are these the norms you want to be creating for your kids? Think about the memories you want your child to have, and then consider how you will use technology as an ally.

5. Don’t view the choice as a purely negative one. We often fixate on the negative (and scary!) aspects of giving our kids technology, but there’s a lot about new technology that deserves to be celebrated, says Burley-Hofmann. Entertainment and games, in balance, can be really fun, and cell phones make it easier to communicate than ever before. We can now keep in touch with family across the country, and teachers are integrating it into their curriculums in a healthy, balanced way.

For more advice from Steiner-Adair and Burley-Hofmann, listen to the full episode below, and don’t forget to subscribe and review the show on iTunes!