SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - As kids start a new school year, parents wonder if they should include a cell phone on the back-to-school shopping list.
"It's a complicated question, right?" asks Dr. Michael Enenbach, the Clinical Director of the Child Mind Institute in the Bay Area. "If a child asked for a cell phone, I wouldn't just give them one I would talk about what the positives are, where the negatives are."
They've been studying the effects of cell phones on kids' brains for years. Dr. Enebach says there's no simple answer when trying to decide what age is appropriate.
"It's really assessing where they are developmentally," he says. "It's also important to monitor, as best we can, how they're using it."
Dr. Enenbach says "need" plays a big factor in that decision. So does "why" kids want the phone and "how" they'll use it. He says parents need to determine if their kids "need" a phone for schoolwork or social connection with friends. Or if they simply "want" one because their friends have a phone, or to mindlessly scroll on social media and websites.
He also says parents need to have the same kind of reflection on their end. Do their kids "need" the phone for safety reasons? Or does a parent "want" to use it as a substitute babysitter?
A Pew Research study found that 45% of kids say it's OK for a child to get their first cell phone between the ages of 12-14. A separate study found that 69% of 12-year-olds in the US already have one.
"We used to think holding off until 13, 14, 15 was the best idea. But now I've actually changed my mind on that," says family coach Dr. Catherine Pearlman. "I think by that time, kids are no longer interested in hearing from their parents about safety and rules and guidelines. And they've all had access way before that."
Dr. Pearlman recently published the book "First Phone." It's written directly for kids aged 8-14 to help them figure out boundaries and guidelines for proper cell phone use. She says it's critical that kids have a role in creating rules with their parents.
"We need to talk a lot about etiquette," she says. "When to use a phone, when to put it down. How to talk to people in a digital environment. How to be kind, things like that."
Dr. Pearlman suggests kids and parents create a digital contract that spells out what is expected. It can cover screen time limits, which apps are okay to download, safety while online, and what happens if the child breaks the contract.
"I think the contract is great because it really does foster communication between kids and parents about what the expectations are," says Dr. Pearlman.
Dr. Enenbach agrees all of those aspects are important. But he says parents have to closely monitor how their kids use their phones, and how it's affecting them.
"It affects different disorders like ADHD," he says. "There can also be changes in sleep, changes in mood, thoughts of harming themselves, changes in appetite. There are different things that go along with depression that can result from cellphone usage."
"Just check in every once in a while," Dr. Enenbach says.
When it comes to safety, a cell phone brings just as many pros and cons. Parents have concerns about online sex trafficking, cyber-bullying, and more. At the same time, many say they like the ability for kids to call them (or vice-versa) if there's ever a problem at school or on the walk home.
Dr. Pearlman says all of that can be addressed by teaching kids how to use the phone properly.
"Parents and kids need to communicate about how they're going to talk to each other in the event of a (true) emergency," she says.
Ultimately, Dr. Enebach says the decision will be different for each family, and even for each child within a family.
"Have a conversation," he says. "Ensure your child is mature enough to use the phone smartly, and have an open dialogue after giving them the phone about how it's going."