At What Age Should I Get My Child a Smartphone?

It's a big decision to get a child a smartphone. What's the right age?

Posted Oct 30, 2018

vadimguzhva/iStock
Source: vadimguzhva/iStock
vadimguzhva/iStock
Source: vadimguzhva/iStock

Every parent these days must struggle with a question that's important to a child/teen's development and health, and it's this: "At what age should I get my child a smartphone?"

I get this question so frequently in my presentations that I wanted to post my thoughts about it here. This post is based upon my video blog on the topic, but I've made some adaptations and updates to make this more "reader-friendly." I cover this topic and other frequently asked questions in my book, Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World. 

Should We Be Concerned About When Our Kids Get a Smartphone?

Smartphones aren't causing kids and teens fall off a cliff into misery and despair. The sky is not falling. However, there is research to suggest that kids' use of smartphones can have negative effects on well-being. Researchers are still debating how kids and teens are being affected by screens and to what extent. Moreover, much of the research is correlational. This makes it difficult to know whether screens are causing some of the negative outcomes or kids and teens who are already anxious and depressed are more drawn to overusing them. Still, from all that I've read on the subject, some tentative conclusions at this point are:

  • Kids and teens are spending a lot of time on screens. Their "typical" use might be "overuse."
  • Screens are so enticing that it's difficult to put them down and refrain from checking them frequently
  • The overuse of screens seems to be associated with negative health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem
  • The relationship between screen use and well-being appears to be bi-directional. For example, kids who are depressed might spend more time on smartphones/social media and, the more time they spend, the more depressed they get. 
  • The overuse of screens might be causing negative outcomes by pushing out more need-satisfying activities, which include sleep, physical activity, and in-person social interactions.

So, there are valid reasons why we should carefully consider when to get our child a smartphone. Moreover, we want our kids to grow strong, healthy relationships with peers and others without the "technoference" that can occur when smartphones are added to the mix. 

Pandora's Box?

Getting kids a smartphone is also such an important decision because once they get one, they’ll have access to all sorts of content despite our best efforts to limit such access.  Smartphones are a gateway to a vast world full of content that young eyes shouldn’t see (and can't unsee!). We want to be careful and try to shield them from this content until they’re a little older and more mature. Just as we don't allow our 4-year-old to watch The Shining (the R-rated horror classic) or play Call of Duty (an M-rated first-person shooter), we want to make efforts to prevent our young kids from getting a device that provides endless routes to access developmentally inappropriate content. Plus, there are some unsavory people (e.g., cyberbullies, sexual predators) with whom younger kids will be ill-equipped to be deal. 

Some Important Caveats

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Source: vadimguzhva/iStock

Want vs. Need?

Now it’s important to distinguish a want versus a need because our kids, of course, will want a smartphone as soon as they can get one. That doesn’t mean they really need one. Once we give them a smartphone, its very difficult to take it back. The genie’s out of the bottle. Taking away a smartphone from a 10-year-old will often create more problems than waiting to give them a phone a year or two later. 

No "Magical Age"

There's no magical age at which a child turns and he or she is suddenly responsible enough to handle the power of a smartphone. We all know there are some ten-year-olds who are more responsible than some 20-year-olds. This is analogous to other privileges, such as driving. Some 16-year-olds step up and handle the responsibility and privilege of driving quite admirably. On the other hand, there are many road-raging 50-year-olds who, arguably, shouldn't be on the road at all. Thus, there’s a lot of inherent variability here in when a child is ready for a smartphone.

No Research Answers the Question

Not that research could definitively answer this question anyway, but there is no research out there that specifically tries to answer this question of which I'm aware. Even if there is a study that tackles this, it could only be answered in general terms—as I'm doing in this post. Thus, any "professional advice" on this subject is just that. Just as you will hear different opinions on when to give kids and teens other privileges, when to get a child a smartphone falls within this larger umbrella. 

The "Answer" Is ...

Part of the problem in trying to give any advice on this topic is that I could give so many caveats that, ultimately, I don't even answer the question. But I'm a parent too, and my wife and I wrestle with this one ourselves. With all of my caveats and qualifications, if you had to pin me down on what age seems to be appropriate for the responsibilities of a smartphone I’d say some time in middle school. Ideally it’s more like 7th or 8th grade because they are a bit more mature by this time.

In practical terms, tweens have more extracurricular and social activities that make having a phone useful and convenient. So, they might need a phone to communicate drop-offs and pick-ups and coordinate activities with friends. A lot of their friends will have phones at this point, so they start getting left out in a very real way if they’re not able to easily stay in touch with them.

Wait Until 8th?

You might have heard of the Wait Until 8th campaign, and that was started by a group of moms here in Austin, Texas. The idea here was to hold off until kids are in 8th grade to get them smartphones and to get a community of people agreeing to that because if half of the 6th graders have smartphones already, it causes problems for the ones trying to wait. In one presentation I was giving, a parent came up to me afterwards and said, “Oh yeah, Wait Until 8, I got that one!” I was like “Ah, I think it’s Wait Until 8th as in 8th grade, not 8 years old.” We’re talking middle school here. Doh!

Other Tips Regarding Giving Kids a Phone

Starter or "Dumb" Phones

Some other strategies to keep in mind when getting our kids a phone. One, it doesn’t have to be a smartphone. It could be a “dumb” phone or a flip phone - a phone with limited functionality. They still exist out there. Such phones have what’s most important—kids can make calls and text, and they can communicate with others. Phones with limited functionality allow our kids to interact with their friends but then they won't get sucked into some of the drama that plays out on social media.  Another positive about a starter phone is it’s testing the waters. If our kids can demonstrate that they can handle such a phone in a responsibly, then eventually they can level up to a smartphone. As kids are getting older, we have to give them more autonomy. This is an important developmental consideration. If we don't give them more autonomy, how will they grow to be responsible adults?

Go Over Some Dos and Don'ts

Now when they get the phone, whether it’s a smartphone or a dumb phone, it’s important to go over some do’s and don’ts with them on the front end. We want to be clear about the expectations and limits are. This is a dialogue, it shouldn’t all be top-down. We should be discussing these things with our children so that they understand that there are consequences of misuse. These consequences usually should involve losing access to that phone for a certain period of time. That is considered a logical consequence to misusing the privilege of the phone.

"Lending" the Phone

When we're getting our child his or her first phone, whether it’s a smartphone or a dumb phone, one thing that can be helpful is letting them know you are lending them this phone. It’s not theirs permanently, we’re giving them this phone based on their responsible use of it. If they don’t use it responsibly, then they could lose some access. Another suggestion related to this that can be helpful is that they pay a certain percentage of their phone bill each month. This gives them "skin in the game" and a sense of responsibility.

The Takeaway?

In answer to the question, "At what age should I get my child a smartphone," I suggest some time in middle school,  preferably 7th or 8th grade. It doesn’t have to be a smartphone. It could be a "dumb" phone or a starter phone that we get them. Then, as they demonstrate responsible use,  they could "level up" to a smartphone.

Also, when we do finally get our child a smartphone, we can set more restrictions on the phone use initially, such as the hours of the day that they can have it on hand. "Screen Time," is a handy new feature within Apple's iOS 12, allows parents to set parameters on kids' phone use (and our own!). Google's version, Digital Wellbeing, is not available on all Android devices just yet, but should be before long. 

I look forward to tackling other thorny issues in future posts, such as whether we should have our child sign a contract when getting a smartphone. Just remember that there are not any definitively "right" answers to such questions. These are thorny questions, it's a moving target, and life is complicated. We are in this together though, so hopefully we can help each other out along the way!