When do other parents actually give their children mobile phones? Here's the data, and how to tell if your child is ready for a mobile phone, too.
As a parent, you want to give your children freedom and help them fit in with their peers. But often, the way to getting there is through increased use of technology. Especially a smartphone. There’s a lot to consider before giving kids mobile phones. That includes screen time, online safety, and your preferred house rules for mobile phone use.
But one of the biggest questions is about timing. When is the right time to give your child a mobile phone? We’ll dive into that below, so you know your options and can make the right choice for your situation.
When it comes to kids’ phones, you’ll often hear that there’s no ideal age for the first mobile phone. It all depends on the situation and the child. As true as that is, it’s not very helpful.
Instead, let’s look at what other parents are actually doing.
In its 2020 report on children's media usage in the USA, Common Sense Media shows that 5% of kids under 4 and 12% of kids between 5-8 years of age already have a smartphone. These numbers grow further with age - from 36% for 10-year-olds to 88% for 17-year-olds. Overall, the highest peak in mobile phone ownership numbers is seen in ages 8-14.
Looking at data is always good. But if the thought of handing a phone to even the most mature 8-year-old still makes you uneasy, you’re not alone.
Let’s look at how you can tell if your child is ready to have a mobile phone.
Instead of looking for the best age for giving your child a mobile phone, consider their specific developmental level. The questions below will help you determine whether it's time for your kid’s first mobile phone.
Does your child pay attention to where they leave their belongings? That’s important to make sure they won’t immediately lose their mobile phone.
Can your child take care of their mobile phone (e.g. charge it), or would you have to do it for them?
Can your child respect the rules you lay down for mobile phone usage - e.g. no phones during dinner?
Are your child’s communication skills at the appropriate level? They should be able to explain things well in speech or writing. Understanding the topic of a conversation without clues from body language is also an important skill. Lastly, they should be able to identify what's important in a conversation, so they don’t send rambling voicemails or texts.
If your answers to all these questions are positive, then it might be the right time to get your kid a mobile phone. If you’re in doubt or your child isn’t there yet with their communication skills, you might want to consider some mobile phone alternatives before you go for the real thing.
Many parents delay giving their child a mobile phone, because they worry it can be harmful to them. Excessive screen time has been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in children and adolescents. The younger the child, the more challenging it can be for them to put the phone down. And the more difficult for you to identify the signs of things getting out of hand. These are valid reasons to wait with handing your child a phone.
There are also other benefits in waiting. Giving a child a mobile phone requires a lot from a parent - you need to lay down ground rules, educate your child about the realities of the internet, and make sure your child is being responsible with their device. If you can’t invest the time to support your child through this right now, it might be best to wait.
This being said, a mobile phone doesn’t necessarily mean more screen time. We may live in the smartphone era, but good old flip phones (and their technological predecessors) are still around. This is their moment to shine.
A basic mobile phone can be a much better option than a smartphone, especially for a younger child. It’ll keep them reachable and give them a sense of independence, without making them reliant on a screen or an app for entertainment or orientation (just yet). Here are some options:
Screenless emergency phones for children. No screen, no problem. These simple devices can be attached to a backpack or a piece of clothing. Use them to track your child’s location, call them, or have them call you. That’s pretty much all their functionality.
Smartwatches for kids. Most children’s smartwatches have call functionality, as well as GPS tracking. Next to that, they offer some games to keep your child entertained during a car trip, for example. All you need to do is equip the smartwatch with a pay as you go SIM card, which you can top up online anytime.
If you feel that it’s the right time to get your child a mobile phone or a smartphone, make sure you’re well-prepared. Start by laying down your rules for using the phone and communicating those with your child. For a tween or teen, it could be a good idea to involve them in choosing a suitable mobile plan. Keeping track of their remaining minutes or texts is an important skill for them to learn. And a great opportunity for you to start teaching your children how to handle money.