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How young is too young to give a child a cellphone?

Posted at 6:23 PM, May 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-30 15:24:18-04

PHOENIX, AZ — Parents of preteens have most likely been asked more than once, "Mom (or Dad), can I get a phone?"

It's certainly a question I've been asked numerous times by my daughter Mara, who is 11.

"I stopped asking for a phone because I knew I wasn't going to get it," is what Mara told me though tears when we sat down for an intimate mother-daughter conversation about getting a cell phone.

Her father and I have held out on giving her phone primarily because we know the ramifications of screen time and the harm it causes to the developing brain. I started doing research on how to "hold off" on giving her a phone, which lead me to the website

What I read on the site truly scared me. A phone delivers a near-constant dose of dopamine to the developing brain with every ding from a text, email, or like on social media. For this story, I interviewed Mara because I wanted to see her from an outsider's perspective, if that's even possible. What I learned from her was the importance of having a phone that she could call hers.

"When you say 'I have a phone' everything changes," is what Mara told me as we sat in the comfort of her room. "I use your phone, mom, but I want to have one that's mine."

Honestly, I don't want to see her glued to a screen like I see so many kids. In her 5th grade classroom, 20 out of 24 kids have phones. Mara is one of the four who don't.

"I feel upset and left out and that I can't do what they are doing and be there where they are," Mara said.

A few weeks ago when I tucked Mara into bed, we had a conversation about a phone and then she started crying.

"I cried myself to sleep because I really wanted a phone," Mara told me during our interview.

Katey McPherson travels the country talking to parents about social media, phones, screen time, bullying and all of the worries that us parents have to come to terms with in this digital age.

"For me it's like graduated freedoms, everyone wants me to say 10 is a good age or 14 is a good age, but I know some irresponsible 10-year-olds and i know super responsible 14-year-olds. I think we need to get away from the age thing and really get clear as a family what's the function of this device," McPherson said.

She asked me about the purpose and function of the device I would get for my daughter.

"I want to connect with friends and be on YouTube," was her response when I asked the same question of her.

McPherson's approach to giving a preteen a phone is not an all or nothing proposition, the way I had approached it prior to today.

She believes that it could come in 'gradual steps of trust' starting with a 'dumb' cellphone where she can text or call but absolutely no social media, as it is a major dividing line.

"Once you give internet [access], it's balls to the wall, it's straight up everything," McPherson said.

One thing I know for sure is that social media impacts the developing brain because it's constructed to be continuously used--and Mara knows that.

"I know they suck you in and there's many things that have happened with phones and even though it's little it can do many things," she told me.

At this point, I just want to be informed because as her mother, the decisions I make could have lifetime impacts on this soon to be 12-year-old girl.

"I love playing with my dog Meko, making slime, and playing with my sister," she told me.

We ended our conversation with the cruel reality that there is no phone waiting for her after this story is published and airs.

It once again, brought tears to her eyes. I did say that when right time is here, we will start with a 'dumb smartphone'--only texting and calling and making sure it doesn't sleep with her at night and it doesn't go with her to school. I only get one shot at raising Mara, and I want to be sure I give it by best and right now this is what I think is best.

If you've already given your child a phone, here is an app recommended by our expert. It monitors, detects and alerts you as a parent on what is happening on your child's phone.