Family, Kids & Relationships

Before your child gets their first phone: A complete guide for parents

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Parents with kids in late elementary school, middle school, and beyond all grapple with a big question: When is my child ready for their own phone?

When your kids’ peers start getting phones, there’s a lot of social pressure (and often, pressure from your child) to do the same. Common Sense Media reported that 42 percent of kids get a phone by age 10, while 71 percent have one by age 12, and 91 percent do by age 14.

Many parents promise their child a phone on their 10th or 12th birthday. Some agree that 8th grade is an appropriate threshold for a smartphone, while the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared earlier this year that age 13 is “too early” to be on social media because of the health and safety risks.

So is there a certain age when a personal smartphone is recommended for adolescents? Not really, according to experts. The decision to get a phone (and what type of phone) is a choice that each family needs to make separately, based on their financial, cultural, and health context, and their child’s maturity, social awareness, and understanding of the impact of the technology.

Before jumping into getting a phone for your child, follow this guide to determine when they’ll be ready, the safest types of devices you can opt for, and how to manage your child’s expectations about the decision.

How to know whether your child is ready to have a phone

“The current evidence doesn’t support a specific age at which a smartphone is or is not recommended,” Megan Moreno, M.D., a pediatrics professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, told CNBC. “Using a milestone approach is likely a better way to assess a child’s interest and readiness for a phone.”

So what are the milestones to look for? Ask yourself these questions about your child, or discuss them alongside your child:

  • Is your child usually responsible when it comes to things like school assignments and keeping track of their belongings?
  • How does your child act when it’s time to turn off the TV or video games? Do they understand the limits and rules that you’ve set so far?
  • Is your child especially sensitive to criticism and comments that their peers make?
  • Does your child typically “get” social cues, tone, sarcasm, and jokes?
  • Is your child showing kindness towards others in real-world social situations?
  • Does your child make safe decisions when you’re not around?
  • Does your child usually exhibit self-control (such as waiting their turn to talk in class, or pausing their favorite activity to come eat dinner)?
  • Does your kid know when to come to you for help? Can they own up to mistakes?

A phone (especially a smartphone) is a big responsibility, and your answers will tell you how ready your child is and what areas you can work on together. Plus, keep in mind all of the mental, developmental, and physical health considerations specific to your child.

Getting a phone is not only about your child’s readiness, though — it will be a family undertaking, so also ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you prepared to discuss, set, and enforce limits for phone use, such as rules for dinner and bed times, and the use of certain features or apps?
  • Are you willing to do thorough research on parental controls, the risks of online sexual exploitation, and other online safety topics?
  • Are you ready to model healthy and appropriate phone use? When your child observes you using your phone, what messages do they get?
  • What are your reasons for considering a phone for your child? What will the benefits be for your child’s development and for your family as a whole?
  • Are you financially prepared for the initial and monthly cost of owning another device?

First, consider alternatives to smartphones

There are some very practical reasons that your kids might need a phone. If they’re starting to travel alone or do more activities without adult supervision, you’ll want a way for them to independently get in touch with you, and maybe with other trusted relatives and friends.

However, consider whether your child really needs a smartphone with internet access to achieve the necessary forms of communication. Think about the risks of kids having near-constant access to the internet and social media: Distraction, overstimulation, and the addictive nature of apps are a real concern. Plus, ParentsTogether’s survey of parents revealed instances of online sexual exploitation on every major social media platform and showed that a stranger has contacted 1 in 3 kids online, 47 percent of whom were under 13.

Especially if you’re on the fence about your family’s readiness after answering the questions above, delaying getting a smartphone with apps, games, photos and videos, social media and internet capabilities might be the wisest choice.

There are a lot of other mobile communication options out there, ranging from simple flip phones to watches designed with kids’ safety in mind. These devices are not only usually more affordable, but they also come without the full range of online safety risks that smartphones do.

Review some of the safest phones and watches for kids, and make your decision based on what features are most beneficial for your family. You can ask your mobile carrier what options are available based on your family’s needs.

On the safer end of the spectrum, some of the kid-friendly devices and robust parental control setups have security features such as:

  • Lack of camera access
  • No ability to send photos or videos to others
  • Ability to message only with a list of pre-approved contacts
  • Lack of browser access
  • Restricted ability to download new apps and games
  • Simplified buttons for easy emergency calls
  • Waterproof or damage resistant

How to manage your child’s disappointment if they’re not getting a phone yet

Kids constantly look to their peers as examples of what they should be allowed to do, so your child might be upset if you’ve decided to delay getting them a phone or to get them a device that doesn’t connect to the internet.

First, let them know that you understand it’s important to them (if it is) and that you’re not shutting down the conversation — you can keep talking about it. In fact, the more you talk about it together, the more you can understand the challenges and prepare for what’s to come. The lines of communication will need to be open between you and your child so that you can navigate the responsibilities of phone use together.

Openly discuss the reasons they may not be getting a phone (or smartphone), including financial, cultural/family values, safety, mental health, responsibility, etc. Discuss how you’ll know you’re ready as a family, and how you can all get there together.

To help build up your child’s sense of responsibility and awareness (which they’ll need anyway for many aspects of the real world, not just having their own phone), you can even send them on a series of missions, such as:

  • Going on an errand for the family, and keeping track of the change
  • Self-monitoring their homework and TV/video game time
  • Finding reliable internet sources for a school project
  • Going out solo (with a watch or clock) and coming home by a certain time
  • Setting boundaries with a friend/teammate they’re having trouble with
  • Borrowing your phone for just a short time for a designated purpose

But most important of all, be sure to set (and stick to) limits on your own phone usage so that you’re effectively showing the value of other things in life. Think: connecting with your child, spending time outdoors, playing games together, learning practical life skills, etc. And help them understand that their value as a friend is much more than the tech that they carry around.

In the meantime, here are some key resources and scripts to review as you and your child prepare for getting their own device (one day):

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.