How to Know When Your Kids Are Ready for a Cell Phone

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November 29, 2022

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Table of Contents

For many parents, giving their children their first cell phone can be intimidating. Unlike driving, there’s no set age for students to start having access to their own cell phones. The right time to get a cell phone is different for every student. Then, once your student has one how can you ensure that they stay safe? 

From social media apps to internet access, to unlimited texting capabilities, controlling and teaching about technology can feel overwhelming for parents. So, we asked 17 experts to share the best tips parents can use for keeping kids safe before and after giving them their first phone. 

1. Before you give technology, set ground rules

Dr. Brian Boxer

Dr. Brian Boxer, Doctor and Author

Sixty percent of Americans will be buying electronics for the holidays and seventy percent of that statistic is going towards gifts for kids (Source: ARRIS Composites Report). Before you buy your children a smartphone or tablet, ensure you know the warning signs that can lead to a real social media addiction. 

If you must buy your kids an electronic device this holiday season find value in protecting them from the real dangers associated with it.

Social media is like fire. You can use it for illumination or it can badly burn you. Here are 4 tips for protecting your family with technology:

  1. Set limits on social media. Just like we were given rules for watching TV as a kid, the same rules apply to social media. Give them specific windows of time to interact with social media and set limits during homework time or before they go to bed.
  2. Turn off the smartphone at dinnertime. Make family time sacred and encourage real conversations with your kids. By doing that you’ll help develop real-time human social skills. 
  3. Teach them not to engage with a cyberbully. Engaging with them increases the likelihood of self-harm and suicide. 
  4. Social Security numbers are NOT social. Identity theft is real. Make sure your kids understand the dangers of sharing social security numbers and other personal information online.

2. “Dumb phones” are actually not as simple as a parent may think!

Julie Taylor

Julie Taylor, parent & employee at Pinwheel

Kids can still access the internet with a “dumb phone,” and chances are, parents have a false sense of security that their kids don't have this access.

For phone alternatives, I'd recommend a smartphone made specifically for kids. (See several options on the SmartSocial Parental Control Software & Cell Phone Monitoring Comparison Guide).

As I researched articles and blogs for a device for my own son, Pinwheel popped up as the most transparent tool to support him in the digital age. The features aligned perfectly with what he needed, and the monthly cost was half of what I was planning to spend by adding a line to my carrier. The psychologist-backed structure was the clincher, and I signed up on the spot.

After a few months as a customer, I formally requested that this mission-driven startup take me on as an employee. Two years later, my view from the inside is just as inspiring as I aid the effort to support parenting in the digital age every day.

3. Ask your kids, “How would you behave?”

Julie Medeiros

Julie Medeiros, Founder of Miss M Online Classes

Deciding whether your child is ready to have a cell phone is somewhat similar to deciding when they are ready to walk to school on their own. As a parent, you want to make sure they never forget to follow the signs, obey traffic lights, and dismount a bike or a scooter before crossing the road, right? And when they consistently do so over a long period of time without your reminders to look both ways, you know they are ready to walk by themselves.

Similarly, if your child has learned mature online behavior, which includes browsing, analyzing, and sharing information in a safe way, *and* has consistently and independently demonstrated it over an extensive period of time, this may be a good sign of your child’s readiness to own a cell phone.

It is important to emphasize that age is not a marker. The important factors are independent and mature use of the phone and the child’s awareness about the consequences of their actions. 

Open discussions of different scenarios of using a phone, and honest sharing of parents’ experiences or situations they have come across when using their mobile phones may indicate how your child would behave in similar circumstances.

Some of the questions you may ask your child prior to buying a cell phone are:

  • How would you behave in this situation?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • How do you know you can trust this person/information source?

Just like teaching the child to cross the road on their own can be taught by actual practice, the same is true for learning to use the cell phone safely. It may be worth showing kids how you use your cell phone and how you make decisions in the online space. Perhaps, you can delegate certain things, like finding weekend activities or the nearest ice cream shop, to the child so they learn under your supervision how to navigate the information, assess online reviews and browse social media using your phone first.

Finally, parents should have trust in their children. As the popular saying goes, you cannot walk the path for your child, but you can teach your child to walk any path.

4. Every family and person is different

Ankit Bhardwaj

Ankit Bhardwaj, VPN Helpers

As a father of 2, I know there is no definitive answer to the question of the “right” time for a cell phone. Every child is different and will be ready for a cell phone at different ages and there is no hard and fast rule. However, there are some general guidelines that can help parents determine when their child is ready for a cell phone.

Some signs that your child may be ready for a cell phone include:

  • Expressing interest in having a phone 
  • Being responsible with other possessions 
  • Being able to follow rules and guidelines
  • Being able to understand and abide by your family's cell phone rules

If your child meets these criteria, they may be ready for a cell phone. Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to give your child a cell phone is up to you as the parent.

5. Observe how your kids treat their peers

Abdul Rahim

Abdul Rahim, Software Test Tips

I think it’s only natural for parents to worry that their children don’t become a target of cyberbullying, which is a valid concern in today’s world.

Beyond media literacy, I think we need to step back and observe how our children treat their peers and whether they will bring that behavior with them online. In a way, the internet is a virtual playground, and especially young children often aren’t aware of the deep consequences their words and actions can have. 

I noticed this a lot while I was working with children in youth technology learning centers. On the internet, you can’t really see the other side. To children, it may seem like they’re speaking to a wall or themselves — it’s hard to conceptualize there’s a person with feelings on the other side of the screen or even in group texts.

We must teach our kids cyber safety but also kindness to all living beings, both online and offline. I think this is a very important conversation to have at a very young age because we often underestimate just how logical and understanding kids can be. But before we can teach them how to use the internet safely, we must teach them how to empathize, listen and understand the concerns of others.

6. Is your student emotionally ready?

Josh Ochs

Josh Ochs, SmartSocial founder

Getting your student a cell phone doesn't mean they have to have access to every app or even the internet right away. We recommend introducing technology in stages and creating a family media agreement with each new responsibility. (Download our templates and student-focused videos to create a Family Media Agreement.) What makes sense to adults may not be clear rules to your student. We want to help students learn to use their own good judgement, but they have to learn how to make those decisions and avoid trouble.

Another question families can ask is whether your student is emotionally ready to expand their contacts and social network. Can they have a conversation with you (or another trusted adult) when they are upset, or do they shut down and bottle up emotions?

7. Pick and set up parental controls 

Liana Khanova

Liana Khanova, Grace parental control app

How do parents know if their kids are ready for their first cell phone?

First of all, parents should prepare themselves. Technology evolves very fast, and new social apps launch every year, prioritizing growth over reducing the risks of online danger on their platform. (Stay up to date with new apps and software with SmartSocial's weekly newsletter for parents and educators.)

Young users might be exposed to porn content and/or get contacted by strangers, predators, etc. Luckily, more mature social apps like Snapchat and Instagram have started to roll out parental control features, but parents must learn how to use them too.

When it’s time to buy the first phone, a parent's core priority is setting healthy boundaries for their child. A parent should set up clear guidelines:

  • What is good and bad behavior online?
  • What potential dangers might come up and how to handle them?
  • When and where to find help?
  • How much time is allowed for a child to use the device?
  • Do you allow the phone during bedtime, school time, and dinner?
  • What apps, games, and sites are not allowed and why?

Once you set safe boundaries, you can let your child be independent there.

Set up parental controls

Parental control apps help parents set up healthy boundaries agreed on as a family. Parental control apps help parents manage phone usage, set up limits for apps and sites, and act as a mediator, removing the families' tension on the device usage topic. 

Parental control apps let parents remotely manage kids' devices and avoid direct conflicts. Such apps also help your student stay focused on learning and decrease disruptions during study or homework time. 

Parental controls should not be your tool to spy on your child but a tool to ensure that healthy limits and boundaries are set up as agreed.

How to find the best parental controls?

You may use native parental controls that come with a cell phone. However, their functionality is very limited, and parents usually use third-party parental control apps.

However, not all parental control apps are safe. Parental control apps on Android are known for many insecurities and users’ data leakage. (Source: Cybernews.com)

Some Android apps promise to monitor children's messages and send them to parents if any suspicious ones arise. But a parent needs to understand that if a parent can see this data, then a third-party app can see and collect private personal information. They can sell this data to advertisers or leak to the internet.

That’s why we developed Grace. Unlike other parental control apps, Grace is built on Apple’s official Screen Time API that Apple released last year. Grace is also more capable than Apple’s built-in system, Screen Time. For example, lock and pause actions let you remotely deny/allow device usage, schedules to automate repeating restrictions that are enabled at a specific time (e.g. study, bedtime, family time, dinner) automatically block over 50K bad websites, and many more.

8. The biggest indicator that a child is ready for their first cell phone is how they handle other responsibilities

Cory Peppler headshot
Cory Peppler

Cory Peppler, Parenting Digital

Despite the focus we often put on age or grade level, the biggest indicator that a child is ready for their first cell phone is how they handle other responsibilities that we give them. 

  • How well do they care for the dog they begged for?
  • Are we constantly reminding them about the chore chart on the fridge? 
  • How smoothly do they transition off the tablet without fussing after watching an hour of YouTube videos? 

If they've earned the trust and proven maturity in these situations, those are good litmus tests. Problems in the past shouldn't be overlooked when making this decision. If there have been issues with sneakiness or watching things they shouldn't, these will likely be amplified when you put a smartphone in their hand. 

If you've discovered the iPad under their bed, they are likely to violate the “no devices in the bedroom” rule with their phone. If your child has had difficulty in the past with these behaviors, start small and set restrictions when giving them their first cell phone.

We want to be able to trust our children, especially with devices that allow the outside world in. To do so, we have to start with trust that has been earned in both digital and non-digital situations.

9. There is no magic age when a child is ready for a cell phone

Hamna Amjad headshot
Hamna Amjad

Hamna Amjad, Ridester

‍If you are wondering what the right age is to give your child a cell phone, there is no magic number. Instead, you should consider whether your child is mature enough to handle having a cell phone. Here are some things to consider if your child really wants to have a cell phone:

  • Does your child lose things easily?
  • Does your child need the phone for safety reasons or just to play games?
  • Do they want to be in touch with their friends on social media?
  • Are they aware of the importance of having privacy? Do they know what to share and what not to share?
  • Would having a cell phone affect their studies and other physical activities? Can they abide by the limits you set for them?

If your child understands all of the responsibilities there is a good sign they are ready for a phone. However, you still need to set a few rules before giving them their phone, such as no cell phones in their bedroom at night, at the dinner table, or during family time.

10. Validate your child’s feelings while reminding them that having a cell phone is a privilege and responsibility

Rebecca Edwards headshot
Rebecca Edwards

Rebecca Edwards, SafeWise

There is no one right answer to this question. When deciding the appropriate time to let your child use a cell phone, here are some things to consider:

  • How is their temperament? Are they emotionally mature?
  • Are they impulsive? Can they express their feelings with words?
  • Do they lose things often? Are they able to take care of expensive things?
  • Do they have self-restraint or self-discipline? How do they respond to limiting their screen time?
  • Do they struggle with focusing?
  • Do they understand the technology and the concept of a digital footprint?

If you have a child who tends to make impulsive decisions, has difficulty focusing, or has a hard time picking up on social cues, you may want to start them out with a phone that is limited to only texting and calling capabilities. Once you have decided that it's an appropriate time for your child to get their own phone, have a conversation with them to talk about what the rules should be:

  • Ask them why they want a phone and what they want to use it for
  • Validate their feelings and tell them that you understand why they want a phone, but remind them that it is a privilege and a responsibility
  • Make your expectations clear before you give them the phone. Talk about your values, the pros and cons of using a smartphone, and the importance of setting limits (for everyone, not just kids)
  • Be clear about what will happen if the expectations are not met
  • Decide together on acceptable consequences if the phone is broken or lost, they break screen time rules, post/text inappropriately, etc. Have a written agreement (View the SmartSocial Family Media Agreement Templates here).

Talk about not only what you expect, but why. For example, no phones during designated homework time to make sure you can get your work done without distractions. Another rule might be that no one can use their phones during a certain period of time, so the family can spend time together and talk to each other in person.

If they are allowed to use their phone for social media, have a separate conversation about their digital footprint and how their posts on the internet can affect their future. Emphasize the importance of showing restraint and being careful about what they post online (i.e. things you post now will be on the internet forever and could be seen by future employers or colleges).

Follow the same rules you set for your children to model positive screen time behavior and reinforce the value that you place on the guidelines you have set. If you have different rules for yourself, then your guidelines will lose meaning.

11. Set up clear guidelines for all phone use

Dr. John DeGarmo headshot
Dr. John DeGarmo

John DeGarmo, The Foster Care Institute

Check your child's phone nightly to see who is reaching out to them and who they are reaching out to. Remember, you are not your child's friend, you are their parent. You are protecting them from predators and others who seek to harm them in some way. Become involved in your child’s life, interests, and activities, both online and offline.

Be persistent in warning your children about dangerous and inappropriate sites. Protective filters and browsers should be in place, helping to block your child from accessing these sites. Set up clear guidelines for all phone use with your child, and post these as a consistent reminder. 

Closely monitor your child’s online actions – as well as their cell phone – for any disturbing messages, texts, and pictures. Let them know you will be doing so. Remind your student not to believe everything that comes across their phone. Teach your child to bring to your attention any site or contact that might be suspicious in nature. 

Keep credit card details somewhere safe where children can’t access them and never save credit card details online. Make sure that ‘click to buy’ options are not activated. Lastly, teach your child about the realities and dangers of child predators who prowl the internet, looking to target children.

12. Set a good example

Julia Cook headshot
Julia Cook

Julia Cook, Parenting Expert

Before getting your child their first cell phone, ask yourself, “Does my child need a cell phone, or do they just want one?" 

Make sure you set a good cell phone user example for your child. For example, you cannot expect your child to not text and drive if they see you do it. Program in all names and numbers that are important for your child to know. Discourage your child from answering numbers that he/she does not recognize. Thoroughly discuss how, when, and why the phone should be used.

For older children, reinforce the how, when, and why the phone should be used. Always expect your child to answer calls from you. Make sure the phone is turned off at night. Strongly discourage cell phone use during meals and other family times. Purchase the texting plan that works best for your family. Monitor your child’s text messages, phone calls, and times of usage. Have your child review your cell phone bill with you. 

Discuss and strongly discourage cyberbullying, sexting, texting/talking while driving, and other inappropriate cell phone behaviors. Establish and enforce realistic consequences for improper cell phone use. Remember, the cell phone is never the cause of the problem…it’s the person using the cell phone that causes the problem.

13. Have an honest and open conversation about parental controls

Barb Harvey headshot
Barb Harvey

Barb Harvey, Parents, Teachers and Advocates, Inc

Parents often wonder if using parental controls is an invasion of privacy. Consider the stage of life your children are in. Remember the stage of a two-year-old where they were constantly getting into things and exploring because they were curious? Teens are in the same stage, only they are now exploring the world of adulthood. 

When children are two years old, parents can put them in a high chair or playpen to keep them safe. Now as a teen, we have parental controls for safety. It is a safety measure to monitor their curiosities and to answer their questions before they get bad advice or are preyed upon online. 

The important thing here is to sit down and have an honest and open conversation about parental controls. You can start the conversation by saying, “this is not your phone, this is my phone. I am letting you use it. It is a privilege and I am going to monitor your use of it.” Then the conversation can go from there. I suggest using a monitoring tool that first flags inappropriate hashtags or abbreviations. 

Then, look for tools that will flag online bullying texts or posts. You’ll also want to use time controls. Teens can get to talking at 9 PM and not realize it is 1 AM. A time limit helps teens control those late-night calls. Once teens are old enough to go out at night with their friends, the times can be adjusted. 

Finally, use phone tracking, which is available on most iPhones. It's important for parents to be able to tell where their teens are and a tracking program is ideal for this.

14. Utilize the phone as a learning device

Arvin Vohra headshot
Arvin Vohra

Arvin Vohra, Vohra Method

Before a student gets a phone, parents should frame the phone as a learning device. The parents should have the student agree to use the phone for educational training for at least one hour per day. Once the student has the phone, it's usually too late to build that habit. Because of their constant presence, phones are great for learning anything that needs to be memorized (vocabulary, language, states and capitals, etc.).

15. Just because other kids your child's age have cell phones, doesn't mean yours is ready

Holly Zink headshot
Holly Zink

Holly Zink, Digital Addicts

Often, parents buy their child’s first cell phone when other kids their age start to get them. However, this is not always the right move. Many parents today are giving their children a smartphone before it’s really necessary for them to have one. 

The best time to get your child their first cell phone is when they start participating in activities and sports that require them to call you for a ride or tell you that they got home safely. Below are some tips to help your child prepare for their first cell phone:

  • Create a set of cell phone rules for them to follow
  • Before you get your child their first cell phone, create a set of rules that both you and your child agree upon. Some rules could include not using the phone during dinner, promptly responding to texts from you, and not messaging with strangers. Having cell phone rules that are set in stone prior to them getting their phone will help prevent any future confusion or arguments  
  • Ask your child what they would like in a phone

Often, so many parents just decide what phone to get their child based on what’s affordable. To make the cell phone search more enjoyable, ask your child what they would like in a phone. For example, your child may want a cell phone with a great camera so they can take photos. Have them interact with cell phones at your local seller.

16. Use a basic phone for your child’s first phone

Dr. Gary Brown headshot
Dr. Gary Brown

Dr. Gary Brown, Family Counselor

Parents can start their child with a smartphone or, for the youngest cell phone users, introduce your child to the idea of a "dumb phone." That is a phone that you can only use for phone calls and texting and would not let them gain internet access.

17. Their own cell phone can teach financial responsibility

Airto Zamorano, Numana SEO

‍If you’re debating whether or not to give your child their first phone, consider turning it into an exercise that will teach your student financial responsibility. Create a tracker for your child’s chores and assign a budget for the cost of their phone, plus their allowance.

Each chore should equal a dollar amount, so if they fail to complete one, then they lose some of their weekly budgets. Children really enjoy this sense of responsibility and the freedom of having their own phone.

Conclusion

Instead of using age as an indicator that your child is ready for their first cell phone, monitor how they handle other responsibilities. Once your child has proven their maturity and earned trust in both digital and real-life situations, they are ready for their first cell phone. 

To help your child develop a healthy relationship with screen time, set guidelines and explain the purpose of each one before giving them access to their first phone. Some parents might find it helpful to write the guidelines down on paper and create a family cell phone contract. Regardless of whether or not your child is ready for their first cell phone, it's important to have regular a discussion with them, model positive screen time behaviors, and monitor how they handle other responsibilities.


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