When should my child get a smartphone? Parent mobile and social media questions answered
Kids these days are living in a very different world from their parents. Mobile phones and other technologies seemingly refresh every year, with social media growing ever more present in our everyday life.
While this has often been the cause of moral panic, phones can also be an amazing tool for you and your child. It’s all about using them wisely and practically!
So with a new digital frontier bringing lots of tricky questions, let’s unpack some ways to help your children navigate their first phone.
Here are your mobile kids questions, answered!
- What’s a good age to give your kids a phone?
- Are mobile phones good for children?
- How can you keep your kids safe on social media?
- What are some tips for monitoring your child’s smartphone activities?
- How do you put restrictions on your kid’s smartphone?
- How can you help your kids stop using their smartphones?
What’s a good age to give your kids a phone?
Most kids these days usually receive a phone between 8-12 years old. Some receive one a little younger, others a little older, depending on the circumstances. (Fun fact: Bill Gates didn’t let his children have phones until age 14).
Ultimately, however, the right age will depend on your specific child and situation. Just as some kids can handle scary movies younger than others, some kids will be ready for the responsibility of a mobile phone before their classmates.
You can also take into account your own preferences as a parent or carer. Some might consider a five-year-old too young for a phone, while others may prefer knowing they can keep in touch with their child, especially in an emergency.
So besides finances and your own good judgement, how do you know your child is ready for a phone?
We suggest boiling it down to responsibility and boundaries. For instance, consider the following questions:
- Does my child have a good sense of responsibility?
- Are they able to stick to the rules?
- Do they frequently lose things of importance?
- Does my child have a grip on actions and consequences?
- Do they understand mobile technology, including social media or other apps?
- Will they spend money on their phone given the chance?
- Do they understand social cues on messenger apps?
- Do they come to me or another trusted adult when they are upset or have a problem?
- What should the rules be for using a phone? (When, where, why, how long, etc.).
Answering these questions could give you an idea what your child is ready for.
A good plan could be to start younger children on a basic mobile phone without app/internet access, then give them a smartphone when they’re appropriately mature enough. For example, you could start them with a cell phone at age 8 then upgrade when they reach high school.
There are also a variety of options for monitoring what your child has access to once they have their phone, including screentime/app restrictions, parental permission controls, and other resources for educating kids and improving their digital literacy.
If you decide to hold off until they’re older, there’s a chance your child might feel left out or angry because they might not have access to what their peers do. But in the long run, it’s better to take things at a pace that makes sense for them practically, mentally, and emotionally.
Are mobile phones good for children?
Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that screentime and social media are bad for everyone, especially children with their underdeveloped brains.
Everything from eye-strain and blue light exposure to cyberbullying and the worrying prevalence of mental ill-health indicate we could all do with less time in front of screens.
After all, when someone doesn't know how to play outside, be bored, or use their imagination, they’re missing out on amazing life experiences and skills.
However, these risks can all be managed and a lot of nuance gets stripped from the conversation if we deal in extremes. Children and teenagers enjoy some benefits which often don’t get a look-in during the phone debate. These can include:
- Ability to stay in touch with parents, carers, family, friends, classmates, etc.
- Access to communities, support, or technology aids they might not have in real life. This can be especially meaningful for LGBTQIAP+ kids, racially diverse kids, disabled or sensorially impaired kids, neurodivergent kids, and so forth. Even activities like sports, creative arts, and others can sometimes be easier to access online or through a smartphone!
- Educational resources, like research for school assignments, digital literacy tools, etc. And don’t underestimate the importance of learning digital literacy skills before adulthood!
There are even some budgeting apps designed for parents, which can help teach your kid crucial money management skills while ensuring they have enough to get them out of trouble in a pinch.
In general, setting healthy boundaries around screen-time and empowering your kids to make safe, smart decisions while using technology will help them more in the long-run than saying no to everything. Regardless of how you feel, screens aren’t going anywhere anytime soon!
How can you keep your kids safe on social media?
Safety on social media is a big topic these days, particularly for children. Knowing how personal data is collected and used, understanding internet permanence, and other safety considerations like talking with strangers are important to discuss with your child before they get their first phone.
Just like phones are neither all good or all bad, neither is social media. Apps like Instagram or Messenger can provide great ways to stay connected with family and friends while also exposing people to risks and disconnection. Every single plus has a corresponding big ol’ minus attached.
- Anonymous communication. You can talk to anyone – and anyone can talk to you.
- Content sharing. Content is the best and worst thing about the internet. A lack of filter can get you some of the greatest movies – and the worst misinformation out there.
- Encrypted communication. You can keep your conversations secure and safe – or hide illicit activity. Perfect for the sneaky and those just trying to talk to their doctor.
- Gaming. Gaming culture can be a great social activity, but let’s have an ‘f’ in the chat for all the good games ruined by trolls.
- In-app or in-game purchasing. Was it worth it to buy all those Candy Crush jelly boosters? Facebook certainly thinks so.
- Live streaming. Share the moment with all your friends! Just watch where you’re walking before you broadcast your face-plant live.
- Location sharing. A great tool for organising protests and other meeting places with like-minded people – or revealing to strangers where you live.
- Messaging/online chat. Much like conversations in real life – except with 1000% more room for misunderstandings, miscommunication, or outright deception.
- Online relationships. Meet your soulmate – or get catfished.
- Photo/video sharing. Share those precious family moments – to every single person on the planet.
- Voice chat and video calling. While these can be great ways to stay connected, any of the pandemic Zoom fails will tell you it’s not a flawless system.
Generally, social media apps require users to be at least 13 years old – not because it’s unsafe to use the app, but to comply with a US law (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998). However, it’s important to still check-in with your child and engage in open communication about social media and its benefits/risks.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself to determine whether your child is ready for social media.
- Is your child able to withstand negative online experiences?
- Does your child understand the importance of protecting their personal information?
- Does your child understand how privacy settings work, like for social media?
- Does your child understand what’s safe to share online?
- Does your child know how to report cyberbullying and other kinds of abusive content?
- Is your child willing to let you establish clear rules and supervise their social media activity?
Once you’ve gauged your child’s readiness, you can both sit down and have a discussion about your family media plan. This is an agreement you’re both comfortable with concerning how they use social media. For instance, you could discuss:
- Which types of content they can post/share.
- How often they should post (fun fact: in the PR world, they call this a “content cadence”).
- How often you are comfortable with them checking/being on social media.
How much you supervise will depend on your child’s online activity and your family’s culture, but being supportive and encouraging open communication will empower your children to come to you when they need help or have a question about online safety basics.
The Australian government also has an eSafety guide which regularly updates official advice on new and existing platforms, such as Instagram or TikTok, if you’d like more specific guidance.
What are some tips for monitoring your child’s smartphone activities?
While you can put parental controls on which apps they’re allowed to use or download, one of the best ways to monitor what your child does online is to follow them or friend them on their social media accounts. Just keep in mind that you may learn more about them and their friends than you intended!
As a good rule of thumb, if you’d like to discuss what they’re posting online, keep your comments offline and let them steer the conversation. While it can be tempting, it’s important to honour your child’s boundaries by not invading their privacy. Same as you would expect them to knock at your metaphorical door before entering, knock on theirs.
Betraying their trust by snooping on their phone or embarrassing them with a public comment on a post will do more harm than good for both your relationship and keeping them safe. The last thing you want is for them to create a secret account just to get away from you!
Eventually, as your child gains confidence and self-awareness, they still start exploring social media more and more on their own. As a caregiver, you have the privilege of being the person they can come back to for support when they need it. Keep communication channels open, especially in real life, and move with them at their pace as they learn to use this tool for modern life.
How do you put restrictions on your kid’s smartphone?
Tech developers and other companies have cottoned on to childcare needs when it comes to their products. As such, many apps and electronic devices have parental controls built into their software. These allow you to restrict or monitor your child’s activities, including what they can do and see online.
Parental controls can be set up to do things like:
- Block your child from accessing specific websites, apps, or functions (like using the device’s camera or making in-app purchases).
- Filter different kinds of content, such as ‘adult’ or sexual content on a streaming app or content that promotes self-harm, violence, eating disorders, racism, and so forth on social media.
- Monitor device activity and generate reports on which sites/apps they use, including how often and how long.
- Set time limits and block access after a set time. This is a great way to schedule mandatory screentime breaks for the kiddly-winks.
It’s a good idea to investigate parental controls on any device used by multiple members of the family. You should be able to change the tool settings to suit each user’s age and skill level through either:
- WiFi network settings.
- Settings on devices like computers, mobile phones, gaming consoles, and smart TVs. This includes protecting devices or apps with specific passwords only you know to prevent your kids from accessing them without your knowledge.
- Third-party software, such as Bark, Boomerang, or Qustodio. Some mobile telcos like Optus or Apple have brand-specific apps and hubs to help families, as well.
- Setting on apps and programs for streaming apps (Netflix, Disney+), web browsers (Chrome, Safari), and search engines (Google).
Since no parental control tool is 100% effective, it’s important to teach your children digital literacy skills as well. Digital literacy skills, much like social skills, can help your children navigate situations through problem-solving, awareness, and critical thinking.
For example, if your software doesn’t screen a specific Facebook post promoting problematic content, a digitally literate child would be able to recognise the content as inappropriate and either report it or bring it to your attention.
You could also enable apps or settings that cut down on blue light exposure after sunset, since studies show blue light can negatively impact sleep habits, and silence notifications to avoid temptations or distractions.
For more information on parental controls, check out eSafety’s taming technology guide.
How can you help your kids stop using their smartphones?
Putting healthy boundaries around phone usage is important for everyone, not just children. The average person spends between 4-10 hours per day on their phone, which is almost the equivalent of a full-time job’s worth of screentime.
Not to mention the addictive qualities of social media and other apps designed to hack our monkey brains! (Studies show that the latency period purposefully built into apps while they load gives us the same dopamine rush as a slot-machine. Yikes!)
You could reduce screentime by setting boundaries around when and how long it’s appropriate for your child to use their phone. For example:
- Only use phones for an hour in the afternoon, after homework/chores.
- Never use phones at the dinner table or alone in your room, etc.
- Charge phones in the living room at night so they’re not beside your bed.
And so forth. The key is to encourage screen-free time during the day. Honouring boundaries requires sticking to them and keeping them routine. Given how busy we are (and how much we rely on screens during the pandemic), you may need to be a little ruthless and deliberate with the rules. No ifs, ands, or buts!
As caregivers, modelling these boundaries and keeping them consistent/transparent is your responsibility. Kids flourish when given structure, and teenagers especially can sense when rules seem arbitrary or fake (“Why can’t I do this? Mum does it all the time!”). Live by the rules you set your kids, and they’ll follow your example.
Other tips and tricks include:
- Mandatory stretching/exercise breaks after 30 minutes of screentime. Keeping kids active is great for them and helps get rid of excess energy pent-up while using smartphones. You can download an app or change the settings so that a reminder pops up when it’s time to switch off for a bit!
- Don’t use smartphones/technologies as a distraction or reward. While this can be tempting, it’s important to teach kids other ways to emotionally regulate. Different kids will have different preferences for treats (some would love a walk, others a cuddle/snack/toy, etc.), so explore options for self-soothing or playtime that don’t involve a screen.
- Bond with your child and encourage face-to-face interaction. Addictions happen not because of bad impulse control or moral failing, but because of a lack of connection. Fostering connection for your child by engaging with them will go a long way to reducing their reliance on screens. Get them to cook with you, or go swimming as a family on the weekends. Play a board game instead of movie night! The possibilities are endless.
Boundaries also look different for everyone, so it’s okay to do what makes sense for your family. For instance, some people leave their phones at home when they go for outdoor walks, but that may not work for you. Encourage open communication if a rule isn’t working, and remember that total bans/punishment/negative reinforcement never work as well as positive reinforcement for behaviours you want.
Remember: the goal is simply to create more balance in your life and your child’s.
FAQs about smartphones and kids
What's the best mobile phone for kids?
Depends on the kid! Consider their level of maturity and how well they handle expensive items. Dumbphones can sometimes prove inexpensive and hardy handsets for younger children, but a smartphone with a bit more zing like the new iPhone 14 would suit a well-behaved teenager. Something in the middle might be right for an 11 or 12 year old. You can often get older generation phones from telco providers at discounted prices, or your kid could inherit your old one while you trade up for a newer one. There are plenty of ways to go about it, and at the end of the day, the best decision will make sense for you, your budget, and your specific child.
You can also consider extra features different mobile devices offer, such as camera quality, memory capacity, price, and more. If you'd like to teach your child some responsibility, here are five ways to extend the life of their smartphone.
Why do most parents give their kids an iPad or tablet instead of a phone?
A great way to get kids on the digital literacy train is to give them a tablet, such as an iPad, instead of a phone right out the gate. Not only are the screens bigger, but tablets tend to be far less expensive than smartphones in general. Given how often parents fork out to replace lost or damaged devices, that can be a huge plus!
You can also browse a selection of phone deals below.