It seems like every one of your child’s friends has a smartphone. You don’t want him to be left out, but you also don’t want him to get one before he’s ready.

There is no one right age for a child’s first cell phone. But you can ask yourself some questions before you spend the money on what can be a pricey accessory.

Does your child need one for safety reasons? “If kids are getting dropped off and picked up for activities, being able to call mom, dad or someone else is important,” says Kathleen Berchelmann, MD, a Washington University pediatric hospitalist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Cell phones help parents know right away if their child is out of reach.”

Can your child turn it off when she really needs to? “More than 50 percent of kids don’t get enough sleep. Kids who use cell phones or other electronic devices have a harder time going to sleep,” says David Hartenbach, MD, a community pediatrician at Esse Health Creve Coeur. “Using the phone all the time can also make kids less social.”

Are they mature enough? “Text messages and Internet access on cell phones make it easy for kids to use phones for bullying,” Dr. Berchelmann says. “‘Sexting,’ or sending inappropriate pictures, is another danger. These photos can upset some kids and even cause serious legal problems. Kids need to know that what they say and do on cell phones can have bad outcomes.”

Setting Good Rules

If you decide to get your child a cell phone or smartphone, setting strong rules can help you avoid the risks.

“Parents need to control cell phone use, especially for younger kids,” Dr. Hartenbach says. “There need to be clear rules about when kids can use the phone and when they can’t. The older they are and the more trust they build, the more freedom you can give them with the phone.”

Have more questions about cell phone or Internet safety? Call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Family Resource Center at 314.454.KIDS (5437) and press “5” to have information sent to you.

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