Children are quick to learn that mobile phones are a constant in the lives of their family and friends. It’s natural for a child to want one of their own. But there are many things for parents to consider before buying a child’s first phone.

The right age for a child’s first phone 

When it comes to first phones for children, parents often wonder what age is right. Unfortunately, there is no accurate answer to this question because all children are different. One child may be ready for the responsibility of owning a phone at 10, while another might not be ready until age 13 or beyond.

In a recent survey, 45 percent of parents report that 12 to 14 is the right age for a smartphone, 16 percent report ages 9 to 11, and 28 percent report ages 15 to 17. 

Data published by Common Sense Media shows a steady increase in the number of tweens and teens who are getting phones, with some children getting their first phone as early as age eight. The following statistics suggest that children are now getting their first phones at younger ages:

  • In 2015, 11 percent of 8-year-olds had a cell phone. By 2021, that increased to 30 percent, or one in three 8- and 9-year-olds having a phone. For ages 12 to 13, that number jumps to seven in 10, while 90 percent of teens 14 or older have their own phone. 
  • In 2015, 24 percent of tweens had their own smartphone, while data from 2021 indicates that number has increased to 43 percent. 
  • For teens, 67 percent owned a smartphone in 2015, which increased to 88 percent in 2021. 

Is your child ready for a phone?

There are many reasons children and tweens ask for a phone.

  • Children may feel left out because their friends have phones and are communicating with each other.   
  • They feel that having a phone is a sign of maturity. 
  • They want to use a specific app or game.
  • Kids want to be in contact with family and friends. 

That leaves parents to decide when the time is right. When considering buying a child’s first phone, there are many factors for parents to consider.

  • What would your child do with a phone?
  • How mature is your child?
  • Does he or she follow established rules?
  • Is your child responsible or always losing and breaking things? 

Another thing for parents to keep in mind are the social consequences for children who do not have a phone. They are not able to stay in touch with friends or take part in games or other activities that their peers are.

Common Sense Media has a guide for parents with some questions that can help you decide if your child is ready for the responsibility that comes with owning a phone. This post also provides information for parents on the key things children should understand before they get a phone.

What type of phone is best for children?

Once you’ve decided it’s time for your child to have a phone, the next step is deciding what type of phone to buy. There are many types of phones available, with some designed just for children. 

The first decision is whether to get a basic phone or smartphone. Some phones for children come without access to social media and the internet. One example is the highly rated Gabb phone for kids. 

If you are considering a smartphone, remember that it will give your child access to everything on the web, and that may be a concern. A smartphone, however, might have more options for parental controls than a basic phone. Again, it is a personal decision for parents to determine what their child is ready for when it comes to access to information. 

Another consideration is your budget. An additional phone can mean a big change for your family’s financial situation. Pre-paid phones are always an option and can be more affordable for families. 

Fortunately, there is a great guide for parents to help you make decisions that will be right for your family. 

Discussing safety, benefits, and risks of cell phones with children 

Parents should discuss the benefits and potential risks of phones with their children. You may want to ask your child what they’re most excited about when it comes to a new phone, and to support them in the activities they enjoy on their device. If we focus only on the dangers and negatives, kids may be less likely to talk to parents about their experiences online. It’s important to keep some balance in the conversation and connect with them over some of the benefits of having devices.

However, it’s also important to discuss the potential risks of a device, and that includes safety concerns. Parents should make their children aware of the dangers that are present in the connected world. Have an open discussion with your child about using a phone safely, when it’s appropriate to use a phone, and how to use it responsibly. 

Some parents may consider monitoring their child’s usage using apps like Bark. It’s important to understand not only how much screen time your child is spending on the phone, but what your child is viewing during that time, and who else your child may be in touch with. 

While monitoring software is a good option for some families, other parents may choose not to monitor in that way. The most important thing is engaging in ongoing communication and setting clear rules and expectations.

If you choose to monitor, being open with your kids on how and why you will do that is important. Here is an article that may help you decide what works best for your family in terms of monitoring phone usage.

Also, some parents wonder whether to read text messages on their child’s phone. You may find this article helpful in making your decision. 

Setting phone usage rules and promoting responsibility    

Getting a first phone can be a valuable life lesson for your child. It is important that children understand that getting a phone comes with a great deal of responsibility. Establishing a set of rules that you and your child agree to follow can help your child better understand that responsibility and what is expected of them. There’s a great example of some rules here.  

Another option is to develop a contract with your child. By doing so, parents can establish clear consequences in advance for what will happen if a part of the contract is broken. You can see an example of such a contract here

Watch for danger signs

Once your child has a phone, it’s critical that parents pay attention and watch for changes in a child’s behavior that could indicate difficulties with screen time or signs of bullying or cyberbullying. Have an open discussion with your child about the pros and cons of social media.

It’s important that parents understand problems that can arise for some children around phone and social media usage, including self-image concerns, bullying/cyberbullying and more. Some warning signs of unhealthy phone use may include negative effects on sleep or schoolwork, or children may appear distressed, anxious, or upset after using their phone. 

Be a role model

As a parent, you are setting an example for your child. If you are texting during dinner or emailing during family movie time, you are showing your child that the phone is more important. Being present with your family is one of the best lessons parents can give their children. 

For more tips on keeping kids healthy and happy, visit the Growing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Jacqueline Nesi, PhD, and Margaret Nail

Jacqueline Nesi, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center. Her research examines the role of social media in adolescents’ peer relationships and mental health, with a focus on depression and suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Margaret Nail is a clinical research assistant with Dr. Nesi through Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital.