Many kids are ready for a phone by age 13, but this decision really boils down to your child’s maturity and the phone’s necessity. We’ll walk you through some important considerations, the range of cell phones and smartwatches designed for kids, and some tips for controlling screen time.
What Age Should Kids Get a Phone?
What is a good age to get a phone?
Many children are ready for a phone at an average age of 12 or 13.
They’re starting to get more independent
Your kids probably stay home alone, walk to friends’ houses by themselves, or attend after-school activities around the ages of 12–13. A cell phone is perfect for emergencies and pick-up requests.
They’re legally allowed on social media by age 13
No, we’re not saying you should let the government tell you how you parent. But social media is one of the earliest birthday-contingent milestones your kid gets to look forward to, and they’re probably excited. If your child hasn’t delivered a persuasive speech yet about why they need to join Snapchat or Instagram, get ready.
You don’t have to unleash the entire internet on your child’s phone just because they really want to join a certain social media site. Check out our guide to parental control apps.
Their friends are about to get phones too
According to the Pew Research Center, most parents (45%) think it’s acceptable for kids to have a phone between the ages of 12 and 14.1 About 28% of parents wait until ages 15 to 17, and 16% think it’s fine to let kids as young as 9 have their own phones. Other surveys show similar results.2,3
This means you need a game plan for the inevitable, “But everyone has a phone!” argument coming your way. As tempting as it is to turn this into a lesson about individuality and not caving to peer pressure, think about it from your kid’s perspective.
It’s not fun to be the one who is left out of plans formed via text or who doesn’t have the same socialization or media outlets as everyone else.
When should I get a phone for a kid younger than 12?
Some kids are ready for a mobile phone around the age of 9. They’re in third or fourth grade and might be venturing out into the neighborhood with friends, walking or riding their bike to school, or getting dropped off at activities for the first time.
If they tumble off the bike on their way home, discover practice was canceled after you drove off (true story), or get in a pickle with their friends, you’re just a phone call away. Since kiddos this young tend to lose things and don’t have the biggest pockets, consider a wearable smartwatch or an inexpensive flip phone like the Jitterbug.
Children younger than 9 can also wear a smartwatch, but a simpler mobile device might be even better. Kids GPS trackers have SOS buttons to quickly reach parents, and the built-in location tracker tells you where they are, even if they don’t have a clue.
When should I wait to get my kid a phone?
To set your kid up for success, make sure they show a certain level of maturity and responsibility before letting them have a phone.
Your child can’t keep track of their things
Phones aren’t cheap. If your kid is constantly losing or destroying things, their phone won’t last long. Consider having your child save up for an affordable flip phone and see how it goes. Let them know it’s a test run and that responsibility will earn them a chance to have a smartphone.
Your child is already distracted by screens
If they’re already struggling to step away from the TV or computer to take care of homework, hygiene, or household chores, adding a phone won’t help. Help them balance their screen time with parental controls or with a strict “one hour of homework first” policy.
Your kid is already getting bullied or being a bully
Giving them a device that lets anyone talk to them at any time is a recipe for disaster since the bullying is likely to get worse when there’s no one observing it.
But at the same time, your child shouldn’t be punished for other kids’ rude behavior. You don’t necessarily need to delay getting them a phone, but do approach this purchase with caution.
For younger kids, start with a device—like a kids smartwatch—that gives you full control over their contact list. For kids age 13 and up, use a parental control app that lets you snoop on every message and/or sends you cyberbullying alerts.
Being bullied or teased is embarrassing. Even if you have a great relationship with your kid, they might not want to tell you what’s going on. Check out our cyberbullying guide for tips.
How do I choose a phone for my child?
You have three different options for your child’s first phone.
A kids smartwatch has canned text message responses, no internet access, and a contact list set up by you, the parent. It’s an ideal choice for kids younger than 12 who need a way to contact you, whether it’s to let you know that practice is over or that they missed their bus.
Phone designed for kids
A kids phone offers a little more freedom and looks just like a smartphone, but without the ability to download apps without approval or visit any website. You can choose models that do or don’t connect to the internet and social media, depending on how you want your kid to use the phone.
How do I talk to my kid about using their phone responsibly?
Let them know why they’ve earned this privilege
Communicate that you trust them to use it responsibly. They need to maintain your trust through responsible use.
Limit screen time from day one
Don’t wait for your child to have a problem before limiting their phone usage. Without guidance from you, they’re at significant risk of smartphone addiction.4 Side effects include poor sleep, poor academic performance, strained parent/child relationships, and increased anxiety/depression.
Try these techniques for keeping a close watch on your child’s screen time:
- Require the phone to be charged overnight. Keep the charger in the kitchen (or anywhere but your child’s bedroom). Use a lockable charge box if your kid can’t resist temptation.
- Create “phone-free zones.” The dining-room table is an excellent example.
- Designate “phone-free times.” This could be a strict time period (phones off and on the charger by 8 p.m.) or something along the lines of, “phones must be put away while walking.” Parental control apps help you enforce this with “quiet mode.”
- Have alternative activities at the ready for phone-free moments. Whether you break out board games, jigsaw puzzles, variety puzzle books, bocce ball, croquet, paints and canvas, grandma’s favorite cookie recipe, or the dog’s leash, it’s your job to set up non-screen activity structures for your kid.
- Lead by example. Kids are super observant and will definitely call you out on your double standard if they catch you mindlessly scrolling through Facebook at the dinner table. Follow your own rules and demonstrate healthy smartphone habits.
Set up a “phone contract”
This is a formal agreement between you and your kid that covers expectations, responsibilities, and consequences. Lay down all the ground rules about screen time, passwords, message content, internet usage, parental surveillance, and even monthly bill payment (e.g., do they pay overages?). Type it up, print it out, and sign it together.
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- Brooke Auxier, Pew Research Center, “Parenting Kids in the Age of Screens,” July 2020. Accessed September 9, 2021.
- SellCell, “Kids Cell Phone Use Survey 2019,” July 2019. Accessed September 9, 2021.
- Panda Security, “When Should Kids Get Smartphones? (Survey),” June 2019. Accessed September 9, 2021.
- Sei Yon Sohn, BioMed Central, “Prevalence of Problematic Smartphone Usage and Associated Mental Health Outcomes Amongst Children and Young People: A Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis and GRADE of the Evidence,” November 2019. Accessed September 9, 2021.
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