There’s a new dreaded question parents know is coming from their kids (already on the list: “where do babies come from” and “can I have a brother or sister?”). And these days, that new question is coming earlier than ever.
"When can I get a cell phone?"
It's not surprising that kids start asking about phones (and being handed them) at earlier and earlier ages. For most kids, screens from household TVs to tablets to parents' smartphones are present from day one. And recent studies have shown that kids are getting phones of their own earlier than ever:
“Tech use is aging down as young people get devices earlier. A majority (53%) of kids have their own smartphone by the time they are 11, and 69% have one at age 12.” - Common Sense Media, 2019 Census
And it’s more than just phones. Screen time has increased across the board as tablets, laptops, and computers become more common in kids' lives for education purposes following the pandemic and the rise of online school.
So what age should a kid get a phone? The answer is more than a number: it’s a mix of family culture, maturity, and finding the right device for their needs.
When do most kids get phones?
There’s no doubt that trends are changing fast. We might tell our kids (and ourselves) to not worry about what “others” do, but it’s natural for kids to notice when other kids have a device.
For most families, kids owning a phone before the age of 5 is uncommon. However, as kids get closer to 8 that number increases substantially. Here’s the latest data from Common Sense Media’s national census, specifically related to smartphones:
>> 43% of kids ages 8-12 years old now have a smartphone
>> 88% of kids ages 9-18 yrs old have a smartphone
>> The number of 8-year-olds with phones grew to 19% in 2019 from 11% in 2015
It’s interesting to note that while so many kids are starting to own smartphones as young as 8, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok all have (barely enforced) policies limiting users to 13 and above (the New York Times recently reported on how kids under the age of 8 are using social media more than ever)
Regardless of the trends, here's an important reminder: what always matters most is who your kids are, what they need, and what's right for your family.
Should you wait until 8th?
This question comes up more and more. There’s no doubt that parents and educators are increasingly concerned about the impact of screens and social media on kids’ mental health, learning, and general well-being.
For these reasons, many advocate for waiting until at least 8th grade before introducing your kids to a smartphone. Why? Because a kids' young mind is in full blown formation mode during these early years. And more research continues to show that handing children addictive, manipulative devices before 8th grade may be detrimental to their development and mental well being, not to mention dangers from things like cyerbullying and online predators.
Does that mean that no kid should have a phone before 8th grade? A great first step is to remember that it doesn’t have to be black and white. There are a number of better, safer starter options that still give kids access to calling and connection in steps.
What are some reasons to consider a kid-safe phone before 8th?
- >> Keeping kids safe: you may feel your kids need the ability to call for help (training kids to call 911 is critical)
- >> Being able to know where they are: GPS tracking is something many parents feel is essential for peace of mind today
- >> Helping kids build confidence: Many kids struggle with separation anxiety. A phone can be a powerful tool to help kids build confidence away from parents
- >> Helping build healthy habits: Devices like fitness trackers or step counters can be great tools to help motivate kids to stay active
What are the best smartphone alternatives for kids?
Let's talk about the right tools. More parents than ever are concerned about kids having smartphones too early. Yet more parents than ever are also worried about their child's safety and how to locate and contact them. So what can you do?
It’s important to remember that it’s not phones that are the problem so much as the types of phones built today. The good news is - you have options! Below are some of the most common alternatives that help families take tech one step at a time to stay connected.
- >> 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 GPS functions for location tracking.
- >> Old / reused smartphones: We hear this one a lot - parents will give 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, more vulnerable to data security threats due to out-of-date operating systems
- >> Kids Smartwatches: These are an increasingly popular option as a first device for young kids with all the features for connection and safety, but without all the other stuff
- - Pros: Calling + GPS tracking (in the best models), wearable/hard to lose, blocking unknown calls/messages, protected against internet browsing, social media, etc., perfect your younger kids.
- - Cons: Many different models and feature sets (be sure to look for 4G connection, calling & texting, and GPS capabilities, along with proof of safety certifications), limited functionality for older kids.
- >> Kid Friendly Phones: 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 give parents extra insights and control
- - Cons: Sometimes limited functionality or not attractive to older kids, often come without parent apps or have limited parental monitoring functionality.
6 Signs Your Child is Ready for a First Phone
With these options in mind, let’s ask the question: how do you know your child is ready for their first phone? Many articles across the internet will give a specific age like 12 or 13, but don’t fall into the trap. Why?
- >> There can be huge advantages to giving children access to the right kid-safe phone early on (think 5-6 yrs old). This includes benefits like safety, confidence, and peace of mind!
- >> It’s time to start making phones maturity dependent, not age dependent. instead of asking when, starting by looking for important signs of development.
So what signs should parents or guardians look for when considering if a child is ready for their first phone? These signals below are a great place to start! They’ll help you to consider your child’s unique stage and level of maturity. With that, you can then decide what connection option fits them best - whether it’s a smartwatch, a full smartphone, or something in between.
How To Know If Your Child is Ready For a Phone
1) They are starting to build limited independence
Are your kids starting to play with friends in the neighborhood? Maybe it's just the park down the street or grandma's house. Exploration and independence are such important traits to foster in growing kids. If your kids are ready to start taking small steps toward independence, then a phone becomes an important tool.
- - First field trips or school trips
- - More visits to friends houses or grandparents
- - Sleepovers
2) They’re feeling anxious about being away from home/parents
So many kids today struggle with more separation anxiety in the wake of COVID. As kids head back to school, many parents suddenly see kids growing especially nervous and acting out. If that’s true of your kid, it might be helpful to look for a simple communication method that keeps you in touch.
- - Walking to school
- - After school pick ups
- - Regular scheduled check-ins during the day
3) They are growing more curious about the world around them
Children are curious - it's just part of being a kid! As kids start to grow, that curiosity continues to morph, adapt, and mature. If you're sensing that your kids are ready for curious and excited to explore the world in a new way, a safe, simple phone and GPS tracking can be an amazing tool that helps them do just that, while giving you peace of mind.
- - Exploring the neighborhood
- - Being more active outside
- - Wanting to try lots of new things
4) They are starting to have activities outside the home/away from parents
Are your kids starting to participate in sports team? Maybe it's time for their first independent camp or field trip away from parents? These kinds of activities tend to put parents on alert, and also give you a great opportunity to take a first step toward staying connected in a simple, healthy, limited way.
- - Sports teams & practices
- - Visiting friends houses
- - First big school class trip
5) They are starting to take responsibility of small things
Are you seeing opportunities for your kids to take responsibility of small things? Maybe its helping with setting the table for dinner or cleaning up toys. If you see your kid as ready to start taking on simple responsibilities then giving them a first device to care for, charge, and carry/wear can be a perfect step.
6) They are starting to build more communication skills
Are you handing your kids the phone to talk to grandparents or aunts and uncles? If you see your child as ready to communicate proactively and/or responsively then a kid-friendly first device might be the right step. Starting with something that has an approved contact-only list is a great feature to look for.
- - Calling aunts, uncles, and grandparents
- - Using phone or texting to coordinate plans
- - Building familiarity with simple digital communication