I gave my tween daughter a phone, and I have no regrets about it

Carolyn Tate worried about giving her 12-year-old a smartphone – but found surprising benefits.
Carolyn Tate worried about giving her 12-year-old a smartphone – but found surprising benefits.  Photo: Lee Avison/Stocksy

I steeled myself for a world of worry when I presented my 12-year-old daughter with a phone for her birthday. She, on the other hand, squealed with delight at the old iPhone 4 that has been sitting in my drawer for the past four years, suddenly brought back to life.

It's the cheapest present I've ever given her, yet it probably brought the most joy – and the most OMGs.

Giving her a phone made sense. She started high school this year, and is catching buses and trains on her own for the first time. She spends two days each week at her dad's place, so the phone gives us an easy way to communicate while she's there. 

Yet it still made me uneasy. She's my baby. Untouched – to the best of my knowledge – by online porn, anguish-inducing trolls, and pictures of classmates' genitals. She loves hanging out with me, and I happily live in deep denial about that ever changing. 

She's not allowed to be on social media until she is 13, but there is always the possibility she'll ignore my rules and start Snapchatting without my consent. Then there's the threat of online bullying, paedophiles grooming young girls, and the possibility that she'll spend all her waking hours glued to that tiny screen, making her eyes square, sending her stupid, and generally ending her promising young life as we know it.

But none of that has happened yet. Instead, something wonderful has occurred. That tiny old phone has brought my daughter and me closer.

For a start, I now get text messages and photos when she's at her dad's place. As well as I get along with my ex-partner, the time my daughter spends with him has always been a black hole. She'd disappear for two days and then reappear, sometimes with stories of meals shared or adventures had, but more often with shrugs of "Dunno, nothing" when asked what she'd got up to.

Now I see their dog sleeping in a funny position on the couch, I hear about the eight-hour beef brisket her father made for dinner, and I get a thousand memes a day that express how she feels about pretty much everything. 

What's been even more surprising is the conversations we've had while we're both under the one roof. 

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Now, she often texts me from her bedroom. Sure, sometimes it's to ask what's for dinner because she can't be bothered coming upstairs. But more often we're discussing things that happened at school, or making plans together. And the most wonderful thing is that my daughter feels comfortable discussing some things with me via text that she would never bring up to my face: friend problems, potential romance thoughts, worries about the future.

Clinical psychologist Sasha Lynn says giving your child a phone can be a chance for them to step up. "They can practise independence in a safe, controlled environment." The phone can also build trust and communication, says Lynn. "It can give you peace of mind while they're out and about that they can contact you if they're in trouble. And it introduces your child to important discussions on safety." 

Of course, tweens still have a lot to learn about the world, so it's up to parents to ensure they keep safe. "Be open in communication with your child and establish clear boundaries for the phone's use," says Lynn. "Discuss a range of potential solutions to issues that may arise, and perhaps even create a written contract – search online for great examples – to make things more official."

If you feel your child isn't emotionally ready, by all means delay giving them a phone, and don't cave in to social pressures. It's early days; who knows what kind of damage this sweet kid might do in the future? Maybe I'll arrive home tomorrow to find 2000 people partying in my backyard. But for now, I'm savouring this new feeling of closeness, fostered by my crappy old phone. We're having more intimate conversations than we've ever had. I love it, and so does my daughter. I know, because she told me by text. 

How to manage your child's first phone

• Establish clear boundaries for your child's use of the phone.

• Ensure that your child knows not to share their number with everyone they meet.

• Build in non-phone time every day. And overnight, the phone stays with parents – remove that temptation.

• Praise your child for positive use of the phone. Focus on what they're doing right rather than what they're doing wrong.

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