It's a brave new world out there. Most of us who have kids grew up with maybe a pager or a private landline — but our parents wouldn't have dreamed of giving us those until at least middle school. Nowadays, it seems like even 5-year-olds are hooked up with their own smartphone, texting away and looking up anything they want on social media.
But is having a cellphone at a young age really the norm — and is it even healthy?
Well, yes, it really is the norm — some studies have indicated that the average age for getting your first cell is now 10.3 — but that doesn't necessarily mean you should pony up a smartphone as a elementary school graduation gift.
So what is the right age to give your child a phone?
What the experts say
David Lord, CEO of JumpStart, the leader in learning-based games for kids for more than two decades, has dedicated his career to understanding how children interact best with technology. As Lord sees it, there is no magic number age for a child’s cellphone use. As it goes with most aspects of parenting, Lord explains, a parent gets the final say on when a child is old enough to use their own communication device.
“With the current controls, handing down an older phone seems to be a wiser decision as opposed to purchasing a brand-new cellphone. With the ability to track and communicate so readily available, along with learning apps, many suggested age guidelines range from 8 to 12 years of age. Although, every child is different, but getting a child used to a phone for safety at a young age is smart,” Lord says.
Karl MacMillan, CTO of RAKKOON, a mobile app that gives parents insight into their children's social media feeds, estimates a child’s first age of cellphone use within the same bracket — at around 11 to 13 years old. As an explanation for the growing middle-schoolers-with-cellphones trend, MacMillan says, “Many parents say that wanting to be able to communicate with their kids after school is a primary motivation. When kids get phones younger, it’s often in divorced families, and the parent with part-time custody pushes for the device as a way to maintain contact. Kids push for the devices in order to communicate with their peers, particularly with social media. The pressure from the kids is already very high by the time they get to middle school.”
What the parents say
Of course, this debate would hardly be fair without sharing the experiences of a few parents who have faced the same digital dilemma and made it to the other side.
“My son is 4, and I plan on allowing him use of a cellphone when he enters the first grade at 6 years old,” says Temica Gross, mother, best-selling author and analyst for Verizon Wireless.
“Basically it will be his ‘break in case of an emergency’ phone," Gross continues. "I will allow him to take it to school but will ensure the ringer is not on and that it’s kept in his backpack in a concealed compartment. But most importantly, his phone will not be any of the latest trending devices. It will be the most basic phone available. About a decade ago, LG used to market a device for children called the Migo LG VX1000. It only had two buttons: call and end. And you could program up to five numbers (via the web) to the device. If this were available, I'd actually purchase it for my son for his fifth birthday.”
While Gross has a rock-solid plan to start 'em young with responsible cellphone use, Dave Cassenti is a fellow parent who chose to err to the side of caution. When considering cellphones for his now 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, Cassenti — who works as a math, science and technology teacher and runs an educational services company that specializes in helping children (and especially special-needs children) learn real-life skills — required both kids to take a Home Alone Readiness class through the state police department at age 11 before earning their phone.
“At this point, they were of an age that they could be home alone as well as go to school activities without our supervision. We felt they needed a way to communicate with us (or make emergency calls) when there was not an adult around,” Cassenti says. “As a teacher, I also allow my students to use cell devices for some of their in-class projects. I believe that kids will be living with technology their whole lives. They need to learn to use it reasonably. It's the same reason that my own kids had laptops when they were 7 and 9 — I was able to monitor their usage and help them learn to use them appropriately. The same goes for their cellphones — we go through a cellular company that allows me to turn on/off their texting and data. If they use them inappropriately, I can shut them off and discuss it with them.”
Originally published June 2011. Updated May 2017.
How to introduce your child’s first cellphone: Best practices
Both the experts and the parents seem to agree on one thing: Age doesn’t matter half as much as maturity when it comes to a child owning their first cellphone.
Once a parent feels a child is ready to keep track of and responsibly use a connected cellphone, Lord advises setting clear expectations first: “Cellphones are ubiquitous at this point, so take the time to establish limits on what the phone may and may not be used for — for example, positive features like educational apps, camera and communication with family.” He adds, “It is always smart to limit the time a child has with a phone, and not 100 percent at a young age. But to have it in a backpack at school or after-school activities can bring everyone some security.”
Richard Daniel Curtis, author of The Kid Calmer and leading behavior expert who has appeared on BBC and ITV, agrees that a child’s responsibility level far outweighs their age for first-time cellphone use.
“For example, they must be able to know to not make in-app purchases, and they need to understand the dangers of the internet so they don't end up using the phone to access inappropriate sites. One of the big risks with kids having phones is the risk of grooming, trolling or bullying through social media, and kids need to know how to avoid it. To have this level of understanding, a child will be 10 to 12 normally.”
When a child appears ready for their first phone, Curtis recommends:
- Install restrictive apps first. “When giving your child a cellphone, you may put a parental app on there. Make sure you haven't made any purchases on their phone, as the store may remember your card details,” Curtis says.
- Take off the training wheels. Curtis continues, “As they get older, then reduce or remove [the app] — it's really easy for a teen to bypass them anyway — and educate your child in safe use of the internet. Otherwise, the risk is that they won't have the skills to know what to avoid when they do have access to unrestricted internet.”
- Avoid bedtime use. “Phones should be avoided immediately prior to bedtime (for a good 30 to 60 minutes) and not be used in the bedroom. This is because they affect the way that children sleep — the blue light emitted from them delays the release of the sleep drugs, and the vibrating/pinging/blinking of messages and notifications means that they sleep less deeply, as their brain is monitoring the phone,” Curtis says.
For the parents of middle schoolers who just aren’t feeling it yet, MacMillan says that it’s A-OK to dig in your heels a bit. No parent should feel like it’s mandatory for their child to have a cellphone or access to social media at a certain age, he explains.
“Fully a quarter of teens still do not have mobile devices, and many still have little or no access to social media," says MacMillan.
The experts agree that whether you choose to start your child early or start them late, it’s best to not enter into this new stage of parenting until you both feel ready.