Cell Phones and Kids: The Go-To Guide


Nearly all families wrestle with the question of when to allow children to have their own phones. According to Going Wireless, the average age when children get their first mobile devices is 12.1 years. 56% of kids in the 8 to 12-year-old range have their own phones. How’s a parent to decide when is the “right” time?

Some Guiding Questions

Common Sense Media suggests answering a few questions about your child to help you make this decision. Some thoughts to consider include:

  • How responsible is your child on the whole? Think of things like following directions, obeying household rules, upholding standards of behavior, and keeping track of belongings. You can even toss how they handle homework into the mix. Do assignments and needed supplies come home and get returned as they are supposed to?
  • Can you trust that your child would use a phone responsibly? – Only in acceptable times and places, avoiding harassing or bothering others, and following your rules about screen time and download minutes? Will it become a fight to make them give up the phone for mealtimes and bedtimes?
  • Does your child need a phone for safety reasons, to keep in touch with you, to arrange rides from extracurricular activities, or to stay in touch with friends? Will a phone help your child socially or emotionally?

Available Options

Simplified Phones

Manufacturers are responding to parents’ desire for kid-friendly mobile devices with an array of products to explore. These are similar to smartphones (or even smart watches!) and are often more rugged than their grown-up cousins.

Many have limited ability to dial or text just a few numbers, have tracking capabilities, and may even feature an SOS button that is large and easy to access in an emergency. They might be the perfect answer if you are questioning your child’s readiness for a “real phone.”

Flip Phones

Believe it or not, flip phones are still a thing. They are less expensive for the most part, and they get the job of calling or texting done without allowing full access to the internet.

A flip phone might allow your child to keep in touch or have a means of communication in an emergency. The plans are typically a lot less expensive, too, since they don’t need much if any data.

Smartphones with WiFi Only

Here’s a compromise solution: look into an older-model smartphone, but don’t put a data plan on the device. Your phone plan provider can likely help you set it up so that the device only accesses the internet using wifi.

The phone can still play games and do phone things, but without the risks that are associated with any time, anywhere internet access. It might make a good stepping stone for your child who is on the way to being ready for full cell phone access and responsibilities.

Smartphones with Data

Of course, this is the option for when your child’s needs include internet access on the go, and their level of responsibility is up to the task of using the phone as parents intend. It has all the perks of being a grown-up phone (because it is) and also carries all of the risks and concerns.

The Good and the Bad

Cell phones are wonderful and powerful conveniences. When making your decision, take a look at the pros and the cons of the matter.

Pros

Cell phones allow children to stay in touch with parents. Fewer and fewer families have landlines at home, so when your child stays home alone, a cell phone is a must for emergencies. When your child is away from home, he or she can easily call for a ride or let you know they are in trouble.

Cell phones allow kids to socialize. In many circles, a child without a cell phone is quickly cut off from interacting with friends and classmates.

Cell phones provide ready access to information. Kids can learn to find important information, including answering burning questions, finding out business hours or movie showtimes, and so forth. This builds independence.

Cons

Cell phones promote additional screen time. Studies are showing increasing problems with too much screen time for kids, and cell phones are one more screen in their lives.

Cell phones can be misused. Children and teens can use cell phones to bully or harass others or even to send embarrassing or illegal photos or video. Kids can access inappropriate content on the internet without parental knowledge.

Cell phone usage can be addictive. Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about addiction to mobile devices. People begin to rely on them for entertainment, for socialization, and even for security to the point that they can damage healthy habits.

The Matter of Money

Of course, there’s the matter of how the cell phone (and any ongoing data plan) is paid for. Like all aspects of this issue, family standards vary widely and change with the age of the child or teen.

The Gift of a Cell Phone

Some families just bite the bullet and add an extra line to their family cell phone plan. Many carriers offer discounts for multiple lines, so it might not be as expensive as you think.

And remember that your child probably doesn’t really NEED the latest and greatest of the favorite make and model phone. There are plenty of less expensive options like models that are a few years old or refurbished devices.

Partial Payment Options

Feeling like the kids need a bit of a lesson in the cost of living? Perhaps you should work out a partial payment plan. If your child has a way of earning money, this could be the right option for your family. Just like in real life, kids and teens will learn that there are fixed expenses that need taken care of before they have free rein with their cash.

What’s fair? It might be a good time to talk about needs vs. wants at this point. Is the phone purely for recreation, fun, and status? Perhaps that is worth a larger monthly payment. Is the phone a necessity for safety or well-being? Then it seems fair that parents would shoulder more of the cost if that’s possible.

Pay in Full

Of course, there’s always the “you-want-it, you-buy-it” plan. If you have a teen with an outside of the home sort of a job, this might be the way to go. Keeping up with a cell phone payment can lay the groundwork for real-life budgeting of housing expenses, food, and other necessities of life.

If your child is over the age of 18, then consider allowing him or her to have the plan in their own name. It can help establish a pattern of financial responsibility that will be helpful with future large purchases.

Handling Loss or Damage

Be sure you hash this detail out before the phone is even taken out of the store. Even the most responsible children (or adults!) can drop or lose a phone. They can be stolen, too, in spite of the best precautions.

How do you plan to handle this almost inevitable circumstance? Whether you choose to replace, to share the cost with the kid, or ask them to pay for problems, have a clear understanding with them about what happens in the event of a true phone incident and what will happen if the phone owner is negligent.

Trust and Verify

Getting a cell phone for a child or teen is a big step.

Safety First

Set clear usage rules, including proper time, place, amount, and purpose. Make sure you can enforce the rules that you set up, because if your child believes he or she is “getting away with it” you are setting yourself up for a host of problems.

Teach your child not only proper phone etiquette like no phones at mealtimes but focus on the real person in front of you instead of the phone. Also, to make sure to converse or text in places where no one will be bothered, and also teach your child your household rules, like no phone in the bedroom, limiting usage, what they can and cannot download, and so forth.

Be certain to teach them not to communicate with strangers, bully or harass others, or take, send or receive illegal or embarrassing photos.

Monitoring Your Child

It will be really important to educate yourself about how to access the device’s history and have access to your child’s social media accounts if you feel it’s warranted. Remember that most websites list 13 years of age as the minimum age for users unless they are specifically designed for children.

There are also various parental control settings that you can access. Your cell phone provider can help you set these up if you need guidance. Consider controlling aspects such as the ability to make purchases, to download games or other apps, and calling or receiving calls from outside of the country.

And finally, there are numerous monitoring, tracking, and protective apps that you can choose to use. For example, check out this review of Sfara or this review of Parent Control Screen Time.

What Can Go Wrong?

Before you make your final decision, lay out all of the things that could conceivably go wrong if you allow your child to have a cell phone. Decide how you are going to handle them, and share these decisions with your child so that everyone has a clear understanding.

Misuse of the Phone

Children and teens sometimes make poor decisions. Make a list of unacceptable behaviors that are grounds for limiting phone privileges.

How will you respond if you find your child is using the phone too much, for unauthorized activities, to make others feel bad, or downloading or using apps without your approval?

Damage or Loss

Quite simply, phones are expensive. What steps do you need to take to help your child be responsible and careful to protect the investment?

Consider investing in a sturdy case to minimize damage from common accidents like falls onto hard surfaces. There are also tracking apps that can help you locate a lost or stolen phone.

Running Up Bills

Young users don’t always understand activities that can run up large bills using a phone, such as exceeding data limits or playing games that include in-app purchases.

Consider setting parental locks on your accounts so no accidental purchases can be made. Monitor your child’s usage habits to keep other bills in line. And have a realistic agreement in place about what will happen if your child does incur unexpected charges.

The Bottom Line

Decisions about cell phones and usage are big ones. There’s a lot of money involved, but there are also lots of considerations about the child’s well-being.

The bottom line is that the buck stops with parents and that parents know their own children best.

Chances are that any well-thought-out decision will be the right one for you and your child overall. There will be rough patches, but balancing the pros and cons based on your situation is likely to lead you in the right direction.