The thought of my nine-year-old having his own phone is terrifying for several reasons — excessive screen time, the world of social media and explicit content and cyber bullying to name a few — but mostly because I know it’s an inevitability.
When I was his age, the most high-tech thing I owned was a Super Mario watch. Today, smartphones are key to our digital existence, serving as a computer, communication tool and entertainment portal. It’s an issue that modern parents have to confront, because as much as an iPhone or Pixel might be an incredible asset, it’s also a very powerful, commercial, political and socioeconomic tool that can be also used as a weapon.
According to Dr. Gene Beresin, the executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, the first thing you should consider when your kid asks for a smartphone is not how old they are, but how responsible, mature and in need of life-changing technology they are.
What kind of technology and when we pass it along to our kids are big questions parents have to face today. Beresin says he’s seen kids as young as 10 using smartphones responsibly and, on the other end, teens waiting until 14 or 15 to get their own device. “It all comes down to when kids are ready,” he told Paste. “It’s up to parents to not only pick out the right device, but more importantly, educate their kids on the responsibilities it comes with and understand the technology themselves.”
“You have to consider this a marathon and not a sprint. Every parent knows their child best and to have a blanket rule, like ’Wait til 8th [grade or things like that are a bit ridiculous,” Beresin said. “All points need to be taken into account, not just their chronological age. Parents have a sense and appreciation of who their kids are, their strengths and weaknesses, and if they follow the rules at school and home, like not giving out private information, only using approved apps and clear limits on time and place of use.”
The fact is, children see adults using smartphones everyday. While parents may feel compelled to shield their kids from technology or even spy on their phone use, kids need to be educated in digital media, and the earlier they start, the better. In addition to the Clay Center, Beresin recommends parents check out CommonSenseMedia.org for tips on introducing their kids to smartphones, online safety, parental controls and more.
“Conversations about phone use should start around eight or nine years old, what’s right and wrong, what the purpose of the phone is, etc.,” he said. “You will know if and when you’ll be able to trust them with a phone, but it’s important that parents are educated in digital media and aware of what kind of media their kids are taking in.”
According to a 2021 study by CommonSenseMedia, about 42% of children now own their own phone by age 10. By age 12, that figure is 71%; by age 14, it’s 91%. Eight- and nine-year-olds need phones to stay in touch with their parents, whether it’s walking home from school, getting a ride home or simple reassurance. Beresin also points out that smartphones can be a bridge into socialization for shy kids or youths on the spectrum.
When you’re ready to pick out a device for your child, there are a lot of choices. Beresin suggests parents also need to be ready to use parental controls for their child’s smartphone or opt for a device that is stripped down.
There are a few options if you’re just looking for a basic device that offers calling, texting and GPS options for your child. including easy to use wearables like the Garmin Bounce, Verizon GizmoWatch and Gabb Watch. They look and operate much like other smartwatches, but only have calling, texting and GPS features. These watches are very similar as they each have a set number of parent-managed contacts, GPS, a SOS button, lock mode and basic apps like flashlight. Newer versions of these watches offer the ability to video chat, track steps, and add apps.
Prices for these beginner smartwatches start around $100 and top out around $150 for newer models. They also require a subscription through a network, which averages around $10 per month.
There are many options if you’re looking to dive into parental controls head on. First, both iPhones and Android phones come with pre-installed controls you can explore if you’re tech-savvy enough. Companies like Teracube, Pinwheel, Bark, Troomi and VTech offer ready-to-go smartphones with additional controls built in. Parents can pair the new phone with theirs by downloading an app, which allows them to remotely set a phone timer, allow and block apps and check on browsing history.
In addition to the phone, parents will be on the hook for a monthly subscription which can range from $10 to $30 per month. These devices, like the Terracube Thrive, allow kids to ask in person or remotely for permission to access different apps or add on more time. While they offer the option to check in on your kid’s browsing history, you may want to think twice on it. According to Beresin, parents need to give their kids space to build up trust.
“Parents need to explain what they’re blocking and why and explain as kids prove themselves responsible, they’ll be able to have more control,” he said. “But, constantly monitoring them and tracking them, looking at all their texts and sites, I think, is a mistake and it doesn’t breed trust or independent kids. We want kids who know how to play by the rules and have a good time. If kids are consistently breaking the rules, then that’s a different story.”
When your kids have proven they can responsibly own a phone, Beresin suggests that they should still stay clear of adding all the bells and whistles. The less distractions, the better. Sometimes parents don’t offer the best examples either, he added. In 2019, Brandon McDaniel, assistant professor in Human Development and Family Science at Illinois State University dubbed it “technoference; McDaniel said that phone overuse can influence relationships and “start to interfere with face-to-face interactions simply because it is always there.”
“Parents have a responsibility to understand media literacy, set the rules and know what kind of tech their kids are using. How many screens are in the house? Do we limit screen use before bed?” Beresin said. “Phones open up a whole host of additional responsibilities and it’s important that parents guide their kids through each step.”
There are a number of stripped-down options for teenagers who are ready for their own phone. Most cell phone carriers like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint still offer old-school flip phones that just offer voice and text abilities. Most are relatively cheap and have contracts that start at a few dollars per month. The Lively Jitterbug is another comparable option for younger users and offers a few other options like Alexa compatibility.
Dana Forsythe is a freelance writer covering tech, comic books and culture. He lives in Massachusetts, enjoys photographing street art, collecting comics and can be followed via Twitter (@danafour).