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How old should my child be when I give them their first phone?

Android for Kids
Android for Kids (Image credit: Russell Holly / Android Central)

Deciding when to give your child their first smartphone is a big decision. It's hard to go back once they've had a taste of internet access at that level of flexibility. Their occasional, supervised social media use via PC can turn into always-on, unsupervised social media use after switching to mobile. It's a scary spot to be in for parents that on the one hand want to protect their kids from the uglier side of the internet while also providing them access to all of its benefits. Let's go through some of the factors to weigh when making the decision that's right for you.

Socializing

It's a necessity for healthy development for your child to be able to freely network with their peer group. So when recent research shows that 50% of kids have social media accounts by age 12, letting your kid have a phone for Instagram, Facebook, or other networks isn't just a luxury, it can be a key point of integrating with their peer group.

The real antidote to cyberbullying is education.

Of course, the modern social landscape is fraught with pitfalls. 28% of students report having experienced cyberbullying in their lives at some point. There's a significant overlap between those who have been bullied offline as well as online, so you may not necessarily be saving your child from hardship by denying them a smartphone. On the other side of the coin, a smartphone also gives a child the ability to commit cyberbullying themselves. A mobile device is easy to squirrel away and use in private, making the parent's job of digital diligence that much harder.

Online anonymity not only shelters cyberbullies, but also external threats. It doesn't take many episodes of Chris Hansen's show to freak a parent out and get them to lock down any and every communication tool at a child's disposal. The real antidote here is education. Teaching kids the warning signs of a threat, and cultivating a conservative online presence with few points of contact are a great start to preventing abuse by those outside of your child's immediate social sphere.

Kids with phones

School

When it comes to education, it's hard to deny your kid access to the wealth of human knowledge at their fingertips, and that's precisely what their first smartphone will give them. They'll have internet access through tablets and computers too, but the immediacy of mobile means they can learn about something the millisecond a question pops into their head.

How valuable is a moment where you don't have to mind your child?

Whatever problems they're having in their coursework, there are likely many well-produced videos to answer their question in a way that's more engaging and succinct than you or your child's teacher could deliver. The more access your child has to these kinds resources, the better.

The downside of the absolute glut of information online is that your child stands to be learning from many unverified sources. These can lay the root for ideas that are either misinformed or downright toxic. Policing these sources as a parent is a little unsustainable, but ensuring your child gives credence to what they're learning in school versus the first thing that pops up in Google is a prudent step to take before getting them their first phone.

Entertainment

Parents, how valuable is a moment where you don't have to mind your child? Where they stay quietly in one spot for at least a half hour? Letting your child take in an educational show or game on their own without you having to keep tabs on them can be just the break you need. It can also act as a great incentive to behave well.

Over time however this can turn into a dependency that could make bedtime more difficult, or even just keeping your child engaged and conversational at dinner. Besides the immediate practical problems having a child a little too attached their phone, there are long-term consequences as well. Studies are indicating that children spending more than two hours in front of the screen each day can suffer long-term effects to their attention span.

Alternatives

Dyno Smartwatch

Of course, you don't have to provide unfettered mobile access via smartphone; it is absolutely something you can ease into. The Dyno Smartwatch, for example, is a great option for kids in the 4 to 9 bracket. It affords communication with a few trusted contacts (namely parents and close family members) while cutting back on additional distractions and unknown social elements.

Tablets are a popular option as they tend to only see use in the home within Wi-Fi access areas. The bigger size makes them harder to lose, too.

Bottom line

There are no hard and fast rules here. There's a lot of wriggle room based on a parent's sensibilities and a child's attitude. That said, getting your kid their first smartphone sometime between the ages of 10 and 13 is considered acceptable. Once you've decided to bite the bullet, check out our roundup of the best phones for kids and some tips for keeping your kids safe online. Let us know in the comments when you think is the best age for kids to get their first smartphone. It's a sticky subject, so it's very helpful to hear where other parents are coming from.

Simon has been covering mobile since before the first iPhone came out. After producing news articles, podcasts, review videos, and everything in between, he's now helping industry partners get the word about their latest products. Get in touch with him at simon@futurenet.com.
15 Comments
  • No phones in elementary school in my opinion.
    Junior high, yes with restrictions.
    Then, unfettered access the last two years as they prepare to leave the nest.
  • I'd agree with you to an extent. I got my girls a flip phone in elementary school so that I didn't have to essentially as their mothers permission to talk to my kids and vice versa. Wasn't anything fancy though
  • Eighteen with a job.
  • It depends on the child and their demeanor, grades, attitude, emotional maturity, etc. But typically the needed qualifications don't come until mid to late teens. We don't even let our kids have their kindle Fire tablets on any days except Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and only for 1 to 1.5 hours on those days. We have learned it really messes with their attitudes, aptitudes (yes it appears to make them more clumsy) and ability to cope with any kind of stress. As such, we highly restrict any kind of "screen time" and usually the only time they get during the week is the random educational video on PBS or Netflix (if they even get that). It's easier for them to focus on being creative and learning when they aren't preoccupied with something else entertaining them 100%. That's just us though; we have been called too restrictive by other parents but I don't want our kids growing up to be spoiled A-Holes.
  • We have a very similar setup at our house for our kids as well. On top of that, all electronics including tv is off by 6pm every night here.
  • I'm in what many would consider the irresponsible segment... My kids are 6 and 8. The 6 year old has an old Samsung 7" tablet, that she mainly uses to watch YouTube.
    The 8 year old has a Moto G, likewise mainly for YouTube. He brings it to school, but only to be able to call us to tell us if he's visiting friends after school.
    I'd estimate about half an hour daily usage. The rest of the time they spend on more hands-on activities - drawing, Lego, playing outside, etc.
    As long as you set down some reasonable rules, explain what they should be aware of, make sure you're available to them on your off-time, and generally raise your kids to enjoy a variety of activities, I can't see the harm in letting them get comfortable with the digital world. Kids generally don't benefit from too much cushioning...
  • I got my first phone when i was 10 years old and it was just a flip phone so i could call my parents when I was home and they were at work and we had deactivated our landline. Didn't get a smartphone till i was 12 and that was just a BlackBerry Bold , didn't get my first Android till I was 15. I'm 19 now and I'm thankful for how long I waited to get a smartphone. The part I'm most proud of is that i could have gotten and iPhone at 11 years old but i said no and to me that was the best decision regarding phones i ever made. I'm proud of that because i got to grow up without relying on a phone for social media and such and i advise that more kids grow up like that.
  • Our daughter is almost 4 and she has a fire tablet which she only uses when we are traveling or out (dining, car drives, etc). We sometimes let her use our tablet or phone for youtube at home but that usually only happens on Saturday or Sunday when we are trying to get choirs done. We always have the TV on. It is either a sporting event or some show for her, but this is what I've learned. We have had it on since the beginning. While she does watch it, she watches it in small 5-10 minutes increments throughout the day. The TV is nothing to her and she would rather be playing outside, with us or a friend. Our friends never had their TV on and very much limited their son's exposure. When they do turn on the TV he is right in front of it like an insect to a light bulb. He doesn't move while our daughter is indifferent. Now that doesn't work for everyone but it works for us. As for when she gets a phone... well I don't know. When I was younger, I had to have a job and pay for it myself. So I got one when I was 19 or 20 in college. Today is different and I realize that. Schools are more tech friendly, kids are doing homework on phones (I couldn't imagine doing this but it does happen. My wife is a teacher and she can vouch.), ipads, tablets, etc at a very young age. I will want to know where she is and that probably means a GPS tracker of some sort at some time in the near future as she gets older. I know I'm probably overly paranoid but when you have relatives working in law enforcement and hear these stories you get very much aware of what can happen. And it can happen to anyone. I think this is more of a safety issue than it is about a phone for games, texting etc. Just my personal opinion, your mileage may vary.
  • @rchapman80 - can relate to that. Our son is 5, he never was limited with any screen time. He uses iPad mini for YouTube, games on mummy's mobile etc. He does have unrestricted access to Netflix, Amazon, TV etc. In most cases his screen session does not exceed 10-15 min in one go. He also ignores TV most of the time. He much prefers playing with us/toys/friends/outside. There are times when we beg him to watch TV and give us a break however his response is mostly "nope"... My brother's kids have screen time very limited and also getting hypnotized by screen whenever it is switched on...
  • 12 was when I had my first phone so that's what my kid eventually will have to wait until then
  • Obviously, right out of the womb
  • "50% of kids have social media accounts by age 12". Anecdotally, I am suspicious that the number might actually be much higher. We're fighting this battle at our house, and it really does seem as though my kids' peers all seem to have some kind of social media account, despite the ostensible age requirement of 13.
    There is *incredible* peer pressure to join these things and share everything, even though they really do not seem ready, don't understand the seriousness of "it's forever", and seriously do not understand the nature of changing relationships where your "friends" (with access to your provided information) may ... not be, in the near future.
  • Oh man, is there a right answer here? At what point are you providing them a tool they will need the rest of their lives and at what point are you exposing them to a pretty large amount of ugly places. I like being able to control things. I like the idea of slowly introducing tech. Get used to it without being expressed to too much too early.
  • I think a phone with data should be something they have to be old enough to work and pay for themselves. I support things like flip-phones for sleepover age, and working up from there. However, I want the primary way they interact with the internet to be at home over WiFi. Even then, kids can hide more than most parents realize, but you lose all control once it's transmitting over a cell signal. Having the most mature kid in the world can't protect them from online predators. I shared information as a kid I wouldn't now, and it will be there forever. It was a different internet then, but that one grew into this one. There are certain concepts you can only truly grasp as an adult & in hindsight.
  • I think I got my first cell phone at age 16 or 17. I had started to play golf for the school team and used it to call my parents when we got back to the school from an outing. Smartphones were just coming out about this time and I certainly didn't have one, let alone texting or social media. That said, I find the notion that 12-year-olds with smartphones and social media accounts rediculous. I don't deny the value of socializing with one's peer group, but at that age are they able to comprehend all the unfiltered things people have to say on social media? I think it's probably better to wait on smartphones and social media until children are a little more mature (maybe 16-18 years old ish).