If you’re a parent, you know the question is coming. It’s just a matter of time. In fact, it might just be the new most-dreaded parenting question (right next to “how are babies made?”) This one is:
"When can I get a cell phone?"
When it comes to giving your child a smartphone, it's important to consider not just the potential benefits but also the risks. From cyberbullying to sexting to screen addiction, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious.
In this guide we’ll consider why more families are choosing to delay smartphones for kids (and why some kids themselves are saying no to smartphones). We'll also look at most important questions to consider as a parent or guardian, and pros and cons of the best safe alternatives for kids.
Why More Families are Choosing To Delay Smartphones for Kids
Smartphone usage among kids may be growing, but that's not the full story. More parents are also choosing to delay giving kids cell phones and calling for safer alternatives. It's not hard to understand why.
Consider a few headlines from the past year:
- Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show (WSJ)
- There’s Worrying New Research About Kids’ Screen Time and Mental Health (TIME)
- Young Girls More Vulnerable to Online Predators Than Ever Before (NY Post)
- Cyberbullying: A Growing Problem (Science Daily)
There's more evidence than ever that high levels of screen time and social media interaction are having long term negative consequences on children’s mental health & development. There’s also growing research on the prevalence and impact of online harassment, explicit content, and child exploitation. Here are just a few concerning statistics:
- Kids between the ages of 5-8 spend over 3 hrs per day on a screen (Common Sense Media)
- 82% of parents say they are concerned about their kids’ screen time (Parents Together Action)
- Reports of child online exploitation rose dramatically since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as kids spent more time online (WSJ)
- Numerous recent studies suggest strong correlation between social media usage, screen time, and increased risk of depression in adolescents (ABC News)
These are just a few of the reasons that more parents are deciding to wait and delay smartphone usage for their kids.
But does deciding to delay handing your child a smartphone mean being completely disconnected?
Not all Phones Are Created Equal
The good news is that it’s not all or nothing when it comes to kids and connection. Sure, it’s easy to think that it’s black or white - either open your child to a world of all the apps, sites, and content out there, or completely cut them off from communication.
Kids need connection, the question is what are the right steps at tools at the right age? Here are some common reasons parents may sense that giving kids a connected device is helpful:
- Helping with separation anxiety while at school
- Starting to walk to school on their own
- Beginning to play in the neighborhood
- Starting new after-school programs away from parents
The good news is, there are options beyond traditional smartphones! The important thing to consider is what approach is right for your child at the right age.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your child’s situation before considering what safe smartphone alternative is right:
- How mature is your child? How well do they handle responsibility?
- How much time does your child spend away from you? Are they getting involved in more activities outside the house?
- Does your child struggle at all with separation anxiety?
- When would connection and getting in touch with your child be most important/useful?
Starting with these kinds questions will help to guide you to the right safe first steps for your child when it comes to digital connection.
5 Best Kid-Safe Starter Phone OptionsSo you’re ready for more connection...but what are some safest, best options for kids? Here are the top five parent-approved, expert recommended, kid-safe alternatives to consider.
1) Kids Smartwatches
A kids smart watch is an increasingly popular option as a first device, with all the features for connection and safety, but without all the other stuff. There are many options, from 4G cellular devices to wifi- or bluetooth-only models.
- Pros: Calling + GPS tracking (in the best models), wearable/hard to lose, blocking unknown calls/messages, protected against internet browsing, social media, etc., perfect for younger kids ages 5-12.
Cons: Many different models and feature sets can be confusing (be sure to look for 4G connection, calling & texting, and GPS capabilities, along with proof of safety certifications). Some models may have too limited functionality for older kids (i.e. ages 12-14).
2. Home Phone/Land Lines
Remember the old curly-corded phones most of today’s adults grew up with? If your child is just old enough to spend some time at home alone but doesn't quite need connection outside the house, then a simple landline could be the perfect answer!
- Pros: Simple, safe, and totally internet free!
- Cons: Not mobile, limited to the house only.
3. Dumb Phones / Flip Phones
Yes these still exist! Remember your first Nokia brick phone or the old Motorola Razr? They're not always easy to locate through providers like AT&T or Verizon, but they do exist!
- Pros: Generally durable, simple, and relatively safe from internet browsing and social media (though some do have internet access!).
- Cons: Easy to lose, can be difficult for young kids to text with, sometimes hard to find, no companion parent app or GPS tracking functions for location.
4. Old / Reused Smartphones
Many parents consider this hand-me-down phone approach a good first step into more responsibility with tech. Parents may try giving kids their old iPhones or other devices without any service plan for use on wifi only.
- Pros: Low cost, introduces kids to smart devices in a more controlled environment.
- Cons: No way to stay in contact outside of wifi; still can have access to apps, internet, and social media without additional parental controls; may not have GPS tracking functionality; potentially more vulnerable to cyber threats due to out-of-date operating systems.
5. Kid Friendly Smartphones
More options are appearing that give parents or guardians control over content and apps on special smartphones built for kids. Some models have only a set/limited array of functions options while others give guardians abilities to add kid-friendly apps and services.
- Pros: Great for kids ready to graduate to the next level of ownership without all the extra baggage; some kids phone models also give parents extra insights and control
- Cons: Easy to lose for younger kids (e.g. ages 5-10); sometimes limited functionality or not attractive to older kids; often come without parent apps or have limited parental monitoring functionality.
Finding Your Child's Perfect Fit
Ultimately, the safest smartphone alternative for your child will depend on finding the right fit for the right age and family. While the below is a general suggestion for families, it's important to note that each child and family are unique!
Best for Younger Kids (Ages 5-10):
- Kids Smartwatches: A smart watch for kids tends to offer the best all-around safe starting point with customizable controls, approved contacts, GPS tracking, and more.
[RELATED: Looking for the best kids smartwatch? This comprehensive guide compares models, prices, and features all in one place]
Best for Tweens (Ages 10-12):
- Kids Smartwatches or "Dumb phones": Depending on the model, a kids smartwatch or simple flip phone tends to give families the right mix of connection tools and independence while still limiting features for step-by-step safety.
Best for Early Teens (Ages 12-14):
- Safe starter smartphones: These new phones offer parents more customizable apps and features as kids grow older and need more connection options (for example Google maps), but may still want to limit social media apps.
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