By Emily Oster
I can tell you the right age for a phone.
It’s twelve. Happy Parenting!
Oh, you’re still here. Well then, let’s dig into this a bit more.
The fact is, there is very little systematic data on the phone question. There is certainly no data that can “answer” this question. The choice depends tremendously on your family, and on the individual kid within your family who wants the phone. The question isn’t even well posed in terms of the word phone. What phone? With what restrictions?
Realizing this can make it feel like you should just pick a time at random—like, when half the other kids their age have a phone (though if everyone did that, no one would ever have a phone, obviously). But a lack of systematic data isn’t the same as having no way to approach the problem, and our approach translates well to the phone case.
FRAME THE QUESTION
What are the possible benefits of giving your child a phone? I can see three primary ones: logistical improvements (they can call you for a pickup), safety (you can track where they are, and they can call if there is a problem), and “social benefits” (this is the way their friends interact, they can text their friends, etc.).
And what’s the possible cost? One obvious one is money. Phones are expensive. This is a first‐line question for many people.
Beyond the money, I see two big concerns. The first is that your child might get so absorbed in the phone (texting, using apps, taking pictures of themselves with a bunny‐ears filter) that they neglect other things. And second, possible social friction (online bullying, anxiety, FOMO). Many people worry that their child may think a phone will make them popular and happy, but the opposite might be true.
The other piece of structure I’d put on the table here is the question of what type of phone. At least in the current technological framework, there is a wide range—from simple “dummy phones” (from which kids can call their parents or emergency services) to advanced iPhones with all kinds of fancy capabilities. Clearly, you want to think about the full range of options.
The data is not great. There is no randomized trial that will tell us whether kids who get a phone at eleven are happier and more successful than those who get one at thirteen, so we can scrap the idea of having an answer overall. But there is still fact‐finding to do, and some evidence that may help you. There are also some pieces that require reflection, but perhaps not evidence gathering per se.
What is the logistical value for your child having a phone? Think through the day. When would they use it? Is there uncertainty around their pickup time from some activity? Are there often times during the day when they’d need to be in touch with you?
If you are finding, for example, that your child is frequently waiting for you in the cold because practice ended early, that could be an argument for a phone. If you are fielding a lot of midday calls from school about forgotten homework, shoes, or jackets, that could argue for a phone (or for a different morning reminder system). Conversely, if you cannot think of a single concrete situation in the last month in which your child would need to call you from a cell phone, this suggests that this particular benefit may be small.
Do you perceive a safety value in a phone? What would it be? One reason is location tracking. Most phones would let you see where your child is at all times—is there value to this? If your child is walking a long way home from school or between activities, maybe this would make you more comfortable. Some parenting approaches would say this is too much monitoring, too much tracking—kids need to have some freedom of their own. For other parents, the ability to see their child’s location opens up the ability to give them more of this freedom.
This is part of a broader conversation around what type of parenting you want to be doing (see more of the “free‐range” parenting discussion in early chapters).
The other safety value is, of course, that your child could call you if something bad happens. It’s worth saying again that—empirically—kids are safer than ever these days, but bad things do happen, and this should be part of your conversation.
Phone Screen Absorption
I put the issue of phone screen absorption in here because it feels, to me at least, like a question of what limits you want to set. The evidence mostly suggests that the cost of non‐social media (television, video games) is a lack of engagement in other activities. Apps on a phone have a similar feel. There is nothing wrong with a little Candy Crush, other than that maybe learning to add fractions is a better use of your time.
So when you think about your family‐time management, this is another kind of screen to think about putting limits on. I know families who have written all sorts of rules about this: no screens at the table, no screens upstairs, phones plugged in at the house entryway and not touched, etc.
Depending on your attitude toward within‐family fairness, you may need to think about your own habits. In other words, no phone at the table might mean no phone for you, too.
And then there are some pieces of this decision that could rely a bit on data. Think again on the question of whether the social‐interaction piece of the phone is likely to make your child happier or less happy. I noted above that this depends a lot on your kid. Think about whether they, in particular, are likely to benefit.
Armed with the data, you’re in a better position to make a decision. There’s no right answer, but this is about as prepared as you’ll be.
Who should come to the decision meeting? You almost certainly want to involve your child in this discussion at some point, but it is possible that you want to come in with an adult‐formulated plan. It could be two meetings, or a two‐part meeting. At work, I find I am often having the meeting‐before‐the‐meeting. Sometimes it happens at home, too.
Ideally, at this meeting you can talk through the data you’ve gathered. Are there logistical reasons for your child to have a phone? What kind of limits would you want to set on it if they did have one? How strong are the arguments on the social side, given the overall social environment your child is in, and given their personality?
If you ultimately decide that there are good logistical or safety reasons in favor of a phone, but the social considerations say avoid it, that makes a case for some type of dummy phone.
If the decision is to get a phone, this meeting is a good time to articulate the rules or limits you want to set on its use. There’s a case to be made for writing them down. A family phone policy (dare I suggest a Google Doc?).
In addition, the meeting here should end with both a decision and a follow‐up plan. If you decide yes on the phone, when will you revisit how it’s going? And what are the key points you’ll want to consider at that time? If you decide no, when will you reopen this discussion? Six months from now? A year? Agreeing on a timeline for this is an input to harmony. If you just say, “We’ll discuss later,” a motivated person might take that to mean tomorrow.
If you decided not to get your child a phone, the follow‐up meeting is probably pretty similar to the decision meeting. Has anything changed? Is there a reason to alter the decision? The plus side is that you probably need more limited data gathering this time. You may even have set some milestones or considerations at the decision meeting that you can re‐visit now.
If the phone has been introduced, now is the time to reflect on how it is going. One question is about responsibility: Has the phone been lost or broken? When I told my daughter about writing this section of the book, her primary suggestion was that the rule should be if you break the phone, you don’t get another one until you are much older. This suggestion has the flavor of an eight‐year‐old (and one who is related to an adult who breaks their phone a lot), but it does have a ring of truth. A phone is a responsibility, and if it’s lost three times a week, maybe a break is a good idea.
Beyond that, though, have people been adhering to the rules? Does it seem like phone engagement—either social or not—is becoming a problem? If the value of the phone is logistics, has it actually helped? Maybe you got a dummy phone, it’s never been used, it’s been lost six times, and everyone’s kind of done with it.
The follow‐up questions will vary. But no decision of this magnitude should be left without reflection.
Good luck! Like many parenting choices, this isn’t an easy one, and it doesn’t have a right answer—certainly not ex ante and probably not ex post, either.
(When in doubt, go with twelve.)
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The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years by Emily Oster is published by Souvenir Press at £14.99 paperback, ebook and audiobook. The above is an adapted excerpt.