TEENAGERS

At what age do you give your children a mobile phone? Here’s how we deal with technology in our household.

We live in an interesting age. Technology is developing with the speed of light and a life without mobile devices has simply become unthinkable. I find this such a strange phenomenon, especially given the fact that it’s not even that long ago since we didn’t even have wireless communication! (I think my dad, because his work as a vet, was one of the firsts with a car phone in our village — it was in the late 80s and the device was gigantic! Before that, he always carried a beeper with him and whenever there was an emergency, he had to find the nearest landline and call my mum who would then give him all of the details. Which, of course, he would write down in the book he always kept next to him in the car.)

Because (mobile) technology is so new to us, because it’s constantly developing and because most of us only started using it as an adolescent or young adult, we don’t have a precedent of how to raise our children with it. We simply do not have the wisdom of a collective memory, formed over the span of generations, to use when we define the framework into which we allow our children to manoeuvre.
At what age do you give your children a mobile phone? How should they use it? Do we limit the time we give it to them, and if so, how do we do that? So many questions, so little answers.

At what age do you give your children a mobile phone?

Social Media is obviously another big beast. It’s the love and the scare of many of us. We feel inspired and empowered by it one moment, only to feel inadequate and frustrated the next. We feel the pull of it, only to feel the aversion at the same time. We feel supported by an online community, only to feel more lonely and insecure as we’ve ever felt. If WE feel these emotions, as adults, how on earth are we supposed to guide our children through the rocky waters of social media?

How do we answer the questions that arise while raising children, teenagers, in this age of mobile communication? How do we define the rules without common experience or precedence?

We try, we test, we mould. We shape and reshape our parenting. When we make a mistake, we adjust and we try again. We talk, we read and we listen to other parents as we figure out what works best for our own family, set in our own culture and community.

And so do Tamar and I. Two of our children now have a mobile phone (Sara has had one for nearly three years now and Pim for about a year), so we had to set our own rules as well. And as we continue to learn and adjust, I thought it would be useful to share the boundaries we have set as a family. Which have worked well for us! Despite having a phone, our children still play, they still read, they still get dirty, they still are children!

But I would love to learn from you as well. Please share your thoughts, experiences and rules too!

At what age do you give your children a mobile phone?

We give our kids a mobile phone after they have turned 11. We don’t make a big deal out of it and we don’t treat it as a present (we do not give it as a present for their birthday, for example). We just give it to them, at an undefined moment, as an indication that now we think they are big enough to start the learning curve of how to deal with the responsibilities that come with owning a mobile phone.

In the Netherlands, children from around the age 11 (and older) commonly cycle to after-school classes by themselves (alone, or with friends or team members). Tamar and I feel that the moment we are trusting our children with the responsibility of finding their own way around town and navigating the busy Amsterdam traffic entirely by themselves, it is a good moment to trust them with a mobile phone as well.

Another reason is the fact that WhatsApp groups are commonly used in the Netherlands for practical communication with teachers and team members in sports, dance and music classes. When children are older than 11, parents are not even a member of these groups anymore! So if, for example, a class is canceled, it is directly communicated to the children using WhatsApp.

When secondary school starts (typically at the age of 12), children are simply assumed to have a mobile phone. Secondary school teachers use online systems to share homework and grades and class mentors share information with their student via class WhatsApp groups.

All in all, the age of 11 seemed like a fitting age for us to start giving our children access to a mobile phone. (By this time, the children are super excited to finally be able to join their class chat group! The biggest chunk of Dutch children get WhatsApp access way before our kids do, so they are usually amongst the last to join the group. Not that we feel that matters — I just want to point out that peer pressure, for us, is not the reason to give our children a mobile phone!)

Initially, we just put a very low prepaid card on the phone and they have no access to broadband. They are not allowed to take their phone out off the house (not to school, not to playdates etc). They can only take it with them when they cycle to classes that take place a bit further from home (horse riding, for example, is a 25 minutes cycle away from our home).

Do you allow your children on Social Media?

We allow a few social apps on their phones. Besides WhatsApp, Sara and Pim have the Pinterest and the Instagram apps on their phones. Sara likes to use Pinterest for inspiration for her bullet journal (she loves hand lettering, creating collages, etc). On Instagram they mostly like to follow their friends, me (and some of my friends) and Babyccino of course! Their accounts are private and they both know that they are only supposed to place content that I approve of. (I don’t approve of stupid selfies or irrelevant, popular content, for example!) They both rarely post anything, and if they do it’s usually a sweet family photos or a cute photo of their baby brother :). I follow both of them (and a lot of their friends, too!) — it’s quite sweet, really. I see or feel no danger here, and trust my instincts.

At what age do you give your children a mobile phone?

Which apps are they allowed to use?

Besides the prementioned apps, Sara uses a banking app and a guitar tuning app. They both use Sonos and Spotify to listen to music. Pim has the app Shazam, which he finds amusing, and an app he uses with his GoPro camera. That’s it! When they want a new app, Tamar has to approve it on his phone, so we are very much in charge of this.

What sort of rules do you have in place with regards to mobile phone use?

– No games! Our children do not play Minecraft, Fortnite or Pokemon. They also do not use educational apps (which, to us, are a bit like games in disguise).
– They are not allowed to take their phones upstairs (to their bedrooms). Phones stay downstairs in the living room. (If Sara has to check the school system, she can do so downstairs and write it down for homework etc.) This rule, BTW, also counts for friends that visit. Their phones stay in the living room too! (Of course every rule has its exception, and if Sara has a friend over and they ask if they can bring their phone upstairs for a bit, I don’t mind too much.)
– Absolutely no phones at the table during meal times.
– No extensive periods of time on the phone. In general, I find it ok for them to use their phones briefly for relevant communications and keep in touch with their friends in a respectful way. To listen to music or check their Social Media every now and then. We don’t have time restrictions set in place, but it’s easy to monitor the time they spend on their phones because the phone is always downstairs with us. In general, I don’t see them on their phone too often (and they ask before using it), so I’m pretty relaxed about it.
– If they break or loose their phone (and its accessories) there are consequences. For example, they may have to (help) pay for the repair. They have to learn the value of a mobile phone!
– They have to be respectful in their communications and display correct behaviour. I expect them to be aware of group pressure and recognise negative behaviour — they should raise the red flag if they feel there is something unpleasant going on.

How do you check all of this?

We know their passwords and check their phones! I occasionally check their messages, WhatsApp groups, etc. When I see them on their phones, I ask what they are doing. When I feel they spend too much time on it, I simply take their phones away from them for a few days. I feel it’s important to always keep the parental authority and control — for the time being at least.

What is your general screen policy?

We don’t have iPads, and the children do not use computers unless for (very occasional) school work. We only watch TV (or a film) on Friday night, and we make it FUN! It is the one evening a week where we don’t eat together at the table: we put snacks on the coffee table, the kids can each choose one fizzy drink (cola is popular!), we have popcorn etc. We all LOVE our Friday evenings all cozied up on the sofa. These evening have become so popular that most evenings we have friends joining us! These evenings are really about connection, and it’s great.

OK, this has become a long post and I do apologise for that! As I said before, please do share your thoughts and experiences, so we can learn from each other! I’m really curious what you have to say…

xxx Esther

PS I love this post by Emilie and the comments: The big phone debate


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Comments (38)

vanessa
May 9, 2019

this post is so timely, i have been having so many discussions about this lately .. marcelo is 13, got instagram this past week end on an iPod at home, he doesn’t have a smartphone (so no whatsapp, but no peer pressure on that yet), he has an old nokia in case he takes the tube somewhere etc.. i do feel the need to put a ‘contract’ in place, and was thinking of drafting one with rules and regulations, and if he breaks one, the phone is taken away for a few days..i am relieved to see that we are on the same page as i trust yours and the babyccino approach in general!!!! how old is Pim? xx


Esther in Amsterdam
May 9, 2019

I think WhatsApp is a very Dutch thing — it is used for everything here! Pim is 12. And yes, taking the phone away sometimes is good, I feel, to create distance — which is a healthy thing. x


Lmg
May 9, 2019

I loved your thoughts here. I loved the way you phrased how we are lonelier than we ever felt with social media. I feel this. So connected yet so disconnected. Thanks for this


Jessica
May 9, 2019

This was such a brilliant piece of writing. I’m not quite at the phone stage yet, but I will definitely bookmark this for future reference. I have always admired your balanced approach to parenting.


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Thank you Jessica xx


Mary
May 9, 2019

I am not in this situation yet, but like Jessica I wanted to say how wonderfully written your article is. It’s so insightful and perceptive. I admire how you raise your family.


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Thank you so much xxx


Courtney in Australia
May 9, 2019

This is such a great post! I love that you’ve managed to create such a healthy relationship with phones in your home. None of our kids have a phone yet, but Easton has started to ask for one, and I can understand his desire to want to communicate and plan social arrangements with this friends without having to go through my phone. It’s all new territory for me, so this is super helpful. xx


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Kelly
May 9, 2019

This is so helpful – thank you! My daughter is 11 and the pressure is building to get a phone – but I’m holding off as long as I can, as I feel I am the guardian of her childhood. Great to hear your very practical and useful guidelines on phone usage.


Esther in Amsterdam
May 9, 2019

You’re welcome! Glad this is helpful :). I just wanted to point out that in my opinion (and experience), access to a mobile phone is not the end of childhood! Both my children (even Sara, occasionally — and she’s almost 14!) still play, they still enjoy crafts, they both are big readers, etc. I think when the time feels right for your personal situation, and with the right attitude and parental control & guidance, children should generally be fine to have a mobile phone! xx


Laura
May 9, 2019

Our son is 13, he got his first smartphone when he was 10. We have also strict rules. We limit the time on his phone how long he can use each app. He ist only allowed to have 3 games on his Phone wich are limited to 20 min each. Whats app is also very popular in Germany so he uses it to communicate with his friends, but normaly if he wants something from his friends he calls them, so he gets his answer right away…. He is not allowed to have instagram, facebook, snapchat and stuff like this. Also we had a big discussion that he can´t play fortnite… the phone has to stay in the living room when he has school stuff to do and also at night times.
Maybe someday when he gets older we aren´t that strict anymore but now I think teenager can´t controll it themselves ….


Sara (in Ireland)
May 9, 2019

Hi, this is such an interesting topic and well written post. I’m from Finland, but live in Ireland. In Finland most kids get their first mobile phones at the early age of 7. The reason being is that they mostly start going to school and back alone at that age. I used to to, but would always phone my mom’s work on landline back in the day to lwt her know when I was leaving or coming back, going to a friend’s house etc. I also had hobbies in town and would commute alone as teen so I got my first log like Nokia at the age of 13. Now, this day and age, when all the kids in Finland have a smart phone, most of my friends there keep telling me about the arguments they have with the phone/screen addicted children. It’s a real stress in their relationships (parents vs children), which has left me pretty horrified.

Here in Ireland most kids have ipads from early on and they usem a lot at school, but mobiles you only see with kids approaching the teen years/secondary school. I feel glad that mobiles are not as ”compulsory” over here in Ireland as they are in Finland. And We’ve told our kids that they will be getting their’s the summer before they go to secondary. I do think it’s important not to feel excluded socially and as we’re pretty strickt now with screen time (they rarely use smart devises and only watch tv weekend mornings), I do think they will be delighted to have their very own phones. Obviously we will have rules and I’m hoping that hobbies and school will distract them enough from phones being the only entertainment, but I don’t see social media as such a negative space. I enjoy instgram and facebook for connecting with family and friends and I’m hoping to be able to educate them on safe ise of what ever device when the time comes.


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Sara, I agree with you — there certainly are many enjoyable aspects about social media. This is why I let my children use WhatsApp and Instagram with moderation. However, it can quickly get out of hand — I see children in Pim’s class — younger even! — go ‘live’ on Instagram before and after school, even during the school break. Children who do not have their mobile phone at school are excluded, or not part of the ‘cool’ gang. It’s suddenly important how many followers you have, how many likes a selfie gets. This, to me, is the dark part of Instagram — a part that we adults can manage a bit better (even though, as I pointed out, it’s difficult for us, even!). Of course it’s not new to have ‘cool groups’ or to feel left out at times — this is of all ages. But in this modern time, I feel there is a huge emphasis on the self — the camera is constantly pointed at the self — literally as well as figuratively spoken! This, I feel, is the biggest danger for our children (and challenge for us, parents)…


Karen
May 9, 2019

This is a really interesting post. My children are 15 and 12 and we have a similar approach to phones as you, it’s nice to read that I’m not the only one to set boundaries as I often feel that I’m harsh in my attitude. Most parents that I know seem to let their children have completely unregulated access to phones, social media etc and although I do trust my children a lot, I also feel it’s my duty to look out for them too. I really enjoy your parenting posts, you have a lovely family!


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Thank you Karen! x


Alex from Bitsy Style
May 9, 2019

I thank you so much for this post! As we start to head in this direction (with an almost 8 year old in the US) I cringe at the site of other kids on their devices. Happy to have this post in my back pocket for the future…
THANK YOU!


Joya
May 9, 2019

We have almost exact rules here in our house. No phones upstairs , apps have to be approved by us etc. Our boys did not get a phone until age 13. They were definitely the last ones in their classes. For the first year they use a non smart phone. No internet, apps, social media and such. I wanted the boys to learn to answer the phone, but could still text with friends etc. I did learn pretty quickly that schools do assume that all students have a smart phone, and thus incorporate this into their communication. My oldest has a few social media apps on his now iPhone (he’s 15) but rarely uses them. I think a lot of teens here in US use social media to message their friends vs posting. I put restrictions on websites as well, because they will stumble upon those. It’s definitely a learning curve for us as parents, especially as I use it daily for my art /business. I like the communication piece for when they are at after school activities or to check in with them at school if needed. This is just a different era! So I’m trying to realize that and help us all have a healthy situation.


Lara in London
May 9, 2019

Esther this post is so helpful! Of course with a 6 year and 3 year old (and one on the way) the ‘phone’ age question seems like the distant future, but I know it is not. Living in London, surrounded by cousins and friends with technology, the children are naturally curious about what age they will get to have the same for tools & toys. Thank you for your wisdom on this. xx


Rose
May 9, 2019

A really useful and comforting article! Thank you for sharing your experiences and the way you do things, it is really nice to have that insight. Your Friday evenings sound especially lovely:)


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

It is wonderful! We look forward to it the entire week 🙂 x


Consu Otero
May 9, 2019

Hi! I loved this post. I live in Argentina and have four kids. Only my girl that is 14 years old has a phone. Her brother, 11 years old is still waiting for us to give him one. I got inspired some years ago from an article I read about a mother giving her kid a contract when she gave him a phone and that’s what I did. It was a great idea and it’s what I’m planning to do with my son when the time to give him a phone comes.


Kate
May 9, 2019

As an American, I find your Dutch perspective so wonderful and affirming in a sea of social assumptions here. Esther, I have twin 7 year olds and a 4 year old and I have cherished your parenting wisdom over the years so much! I rely on it more than any parenting book, etc. You are so fair and frank and affectionate with your children, and I respect the clear boundaries you set. I am going to print this post and save it for when my boys are older and mobile phones become a part of their lives. Your guidelines are gold to me!


Grace
May 12, 2019

I just had to echo this and say YES, YES, YES! Esther, I know how much work goes into these posts, and I just want to thank you. Your wisdom, thoughts, and eloquence (not to mention cozy Amsterdam life) have supported me so much on my parenting journey. They’re not going into a void!


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Awww thank you so much girl! It means a lot to me to hear this. Thank you. xxx


Paula
May 9, 2019

Hi, you have such a balanced view about phones, technology etc. Reading the article I felt really reassured by the fact that my parenting approach to this whole area is pretty similar to yours. As you say it is part of our world and we are the first generation to have encountered it so it’s hard! My eldest child (a boy) is now approaching 16 and got his first phone at 13 and our original rules still stand, but as he gets older I am finding that I’m having to become less involved and let him be more independent and hope that he makes the right choices on the technology front and everything else!

The golden rule of no technology upstairs still absolutely applies and always will I think. His 13 year sister has a phone too and my youngest at 10 has nothing as yet and won’t until she goes to senior whether that be at 11 or 13 years. Thank you for a great article 😊


Carmen
May 9, 2019

Esther, I absolutely love your post. It’s so helpful, although my children are very little, I will definitely print this and keep on my motherhood inspirational board. I really enjoy reading your franc advise and really love and admire your parenting style.


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Thank you Carmen! xxx


Sarah
May 9, 2019

This is really interesting. Thank you for sharing! It is such a weird space to navigate. I was trying to get my kids to use a home phone to call for playdates, like the ‘old days’ but it just didn’t work. And I certainly can’t forever be their personal concierge planning playdates. Our eldest will be 11 and going to middle school. There is a group called “wait till 8th” in the US (when kids are closer to 13 years old) to get parents to put off giving phones until then. Or to use ‘dumb’ phones (the old flip phones, just not the fancy ones) until then. I have no idea what to do.


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Ah, it’s all so tricky! I think, as a parent, you know what is best for your personal situation — the right moment, not too young, and not too old (as then, it will become an obsession!). Good luck with the decision! x


Nikaela
May 9, 2019

Thank you so much. This is a helpful and insightful piece. I particularly appreciated the idea that you did not make the phones a gift. Seems the opposite of your Friday night idea (which is all about fun and ceremony). I admire both these choices as they reflect the habits you hope to instil. That friday night would be a night a teenager would be excited to spend with his/her parents, and a phone would come with the “burden” of responsibly, rules etc. Good ideas here!


Sara
May 9, 2019

Similar rules here. We to aprove the apps they want but we don’t check their phones. We only gave them when they started to commute alone in the city at 12/11 and felt that they had the maturity to cope with it. I ask from time to time what are they doing and follow their very ocasional instagram accounts.
We have a multiple cable charger near the entrance cabinet and ALL THE FAMILY PHONES are charged there and put down there by the keys whenever we’re at home. Of course parents and kids are not the same, but we think that if they see that we too establish a personal rule not to have the phone on us while at home with the family, they will better understand the benefits of it. Like reading a book and a lot of other things in education: it becames really natural for them if they see us doing it instead of telling them to do so! *s


Meredith
May 10, 2019

Hi, I enjoyed your post and agree with alot of your rules. My daughter is 12 and in the 6th grade. She got a basic flip phone when she entered the 5th grade and started biking to and from school alone (we live in Germany). Most of her peers got a smart phone at that time. In 6th grade she is the only one in her class that does not have a smart phone. We have said that she will get one in the summer before 7th grade and then there will be rules such as limited screen time, no social media with the exception of WhatsApp, which is also popular here, and the phone has to stay down stairs at all times. Reading articles like this (and the comments) always reassures me that I am not the only “strict” parent when it comes to smart phones and devices, but I have to say that in my normal life and community, we definitely feel like the odd ones. It is really surprising to me how many of my daughter’s friends have unlimited and unmonitored access to their phones. I would say almost all of them. In the class WhatsApp group (I have already told my daughter that she can not join the class group) messages routinely come through at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. And not just a couple of messages…lots of messages. Some people in the group complain about this, but nothing changes and parents do not do simple (in my mind anyway) things like say that their phone can not be in their room overnight. All of her friends have Instagram, Snapchat and Tick Tock. I have said she cannot have Tick Tock, but she makes Tick Tock videos with her friends on their phones, at their houses. I have to say it is very frustrating. I try not to let social and peer pressure influence my parenting decisions, but it is really hard.


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

I have never heard of Tick Tock! I don’t think it’s a thing here? Anyway — I hear you — it’s not easy. But I think it’s important to establish borders for your children — and guard them. In essence, nothing is new about peer pressure, as children, we had children with toys or clothes our parents wouldn’t let us have. Looking back, I respect the choices my parents made, and the reasoning behind it… Good luck! xx


carolina
May 10, 2019

This must be one of the best posts ever–so detailed and thorough. I have an 8 year old but am saving this. Thank you so much!


Eveline
May 10, 2019

What a great post, thanks! We also gave her a (used) phone at 11, a bit before going to secundary school so she would have time to get used to handling it well before the excitement of so many new things in secundary school.
I wonder why you have rule about what they post on instagram? I totally understand rules about their body and offensive content, but why no selfies or ‘irrelevant popular content’ (memes? 😀 )? I really wonder. I think with my daughter (12y) the online image she creates of herself ( as in: what she posts, mostly things like a cake she baked, a pretty sunset of a funny pic of the dog) is a part of discovering her identity and of her social interactions. She also made a fan-account about a bookseries she loves and posts memes and funny dialogue.

Navigating the whatsapp-groups in school is a whole different challenge to us. There’s two in her class: one with the mentoring teacher and one without. The latter was (is?) full of racist jokes and pornographic animations and soon she left te group. Now sometimes she misses news of questions (she is the only one not in that group), but she refuses to stand up with the crap and spam and I support it. I reported this to the teacher and asked other parents about it, but I get little to no response. Am I the only one who finds this unacceptable?


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Hi Eveline! No, you’re not alone. Pim (and others) left the class group for a while too as it was becoming a very negative space to navigate in. I regularly check the class app and if I find offence content (I usually do), I tell Pim how shocked I am by it, and that I expect him to communicate online as he would do face-to-face: polite and with respect. Truth is, there’s only a very small group of children who do this, and perhaps (probably!), in other times, these kids would have been the bullies. It’s just another way to display their bullying behaviour! Yes, unacceptable, but perhaps unavoidable. I use that content to tell my children how wrong it all is!
About rules on Instagram — I don’t really have any, but they know what I find fun and tasteful or not. Sexy selfies with a pout are definitely a no — too many selfies I find stupid too. Of course, we all like to see their faces every now and then, but I don’t approve of self-celebrating selfie accounts of children who behave like adults… xx


Sara
May 14, 2019

Esther,

I absolutely love when you share your thoughts and advice on navigating through the parenting world. My girls are still little so we are far off from having to think about this yet, but I have been reading Babyccino for a long time and store these tidbits of information for the future. Please keep blogging about topics like this because there are many of us who look up to you and are inspired by your wisdom!

x


Esther in Amsterdam
May 21, 2019

Thanks for your kind comment and encouragement Sara! x


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