What age do you give a child a cell phone? What type of phone do you get them, and how do you help them manage that new device. What brand of cell phone is best for kids? Let’s talk about it.
Before we get started, hi, I’m Hilary — I’m the curly head here at Pulling Curls, and I’m also the creator of Family Routines, where I help you come up with doable systems for your house, so it runs itself. On of those chapters is pretty specific on cell phones — so check it out!
Before we get started I want to be really clear that there is NO answer for every family. I actually just did a podcast on this exact topic:
First off, I think it’s important to really think about how you are approaching cell phones.
Are you approaching them with fear? Not sure what your kid is going to access and if they will create addictions in their future.
Are you approaching it with excitement? The fact that you child could have literally every answer he wants to know in the palm of his hand, and also stay in touch with friends and family whenever desired? I mean, cell phones can truly be amazing when used right!
With my first, I definitely approached it with fear. Which was a mistake. I turned myself into the police instead of a teacher. I think we’re slowly learning the police mentality isn’t usually the best overall (but sometimes necessary, for sure).
Now that he’s a full fledged adult (just turned 21 and will graduate from college in the next year) I have changed my ways.
The minute you drop them off at that dorm, realizing they will have to live a life without you — SO much of parenting became REALLY clear for me.
Yes, I had always parented with the end game that he be a functioning adult, but it seems so nebulous when they’re a newborn, and frankly — even through high school. I constantly think, “oh, I should just do that for him.” and that woman who left her kid at the dorm comes to the rescue and says NO. He needs to learn this on his own.
That isn’t to say that I’m teaching my 4 year old to run the stove… and the same goes true for a phone.
Just like any other appliance they need to learn rules and guidelines.
Do you approach your stovetop with a lot of fear as you teach your kids to cook? Did you just buy a pretend stovetop to teach them on, so they wouldn’t get burned (I’m not talking about pretend play, I’m talking about actually teaching kids to cook)?
No. You didn’t.
When they’re tiny you remind them how hot the stove is, and how it cooks your dinner it could also really hurt them, and they’re not to touch it.
Then comes the day where you ask them to chop up some hamburger as you assist them in making dinner. You remind them of the parts that are hot, and you guide them to just touch the handle and stay safe.
There might also be the day where they get a small burn and they realize how important those rules are (and maybe you take a few days off of working with the stove together, til’ they’re ready again).
This is true of SO. MANY. THINGS are your kids grow up.
- Driving a car (heaven help me, my LEAST favorite part of parenting — it is not for the faint of heart)
- Learning to make friends, and navigate their up’s and downs
- Learning how to talk with a teacher or handle a small crisis at school
- Even when they’re small and learning to get dressed on their own. Let them struggle with that button.
Do you remember how confident you were when you mastered some of these skills?
The pool is a real danger here in Arizona, and my daughter was charming every swim teacher into never putting her head under water. Ultimately we had to pay a lot of money to a teacher who throws them in and lets them learn to swim as she’s by their side. Best money we’ve spent, honestly.
Of course, that amazing swim teacher also taught her to respect that pool, that it could kill her and she was to NEVER go near it without an adult.
There really is SO much risk for kids, and we’re just constantly teaching them how to navigate it!
Ok, back to cell phones. It just seems like parents approach them SO differently right now.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of scary aspects of cell phone usage (love this podcast on porn addiction in teens with a sex thearpist and former addict– SO many good nuggets there). Just like the pool, or stove, or driving a car (HUGE sigh) it’s our job to stand there and do the hard things with them.
Which brings me to the “toy phone pretending it is real” genre as of late.
I have seen companies like Gabb Wireless (but there are also otherse) who cell phones that LOOK like a “smartphone” but don’t actually have any smart phone things on them, and then they charge you a decent amount for the phone, and then for the plan.
I mean, it’s a great business model. Engage parents with their fear, and then give them a pretty crappy product that their child will NOT learn the ropes with, and then charge them a lot for both the phone and the plan.
One of my BIG issues with those phones is that there is a no way to let the leash out.
I believe this type of phone plan has two issues:
- You’re teaching your kids how IMPORTANT it is to fit in rather than to be safe (like, sure — jump in the pool even though you have no idea how to swim — everyone else is doing it).
- You aren’t teaching, you’re giving them basically a toy. It’s like putting the baby in a playpen so they don’t get into anything (which I was a fan of when I vacuumed for sure — but wasn’t a long term solution).
But, what are the other options? You just hand them the keys to the kingdom?
Nope, just like the stove I think we can slowly progress.
Which brings us to the question of what age to give kids a cell phone. For us, it breeds out of necessity. My kids didn’t need one in elementary school. They didn’t have enough after school activities that were confusing enough to necessitate it. Frankly, I think most kids don’t, but if you feel like yours does, you’ll want to figure that out.
For me, I wanted my kids to have more carefree time than giving them a smart phone early on might entail.
Kids texting each other (sometimes bulling) in early elementary grades was something I, personally, wanted to avoid. Frankly, I wanted to limit my kid’s exposure to other kids to mostly school hours (and a few playdates and after school activities). I really liked having them all to myself when they were at home. But, that’s a personal choice.
I also don’t care what my kids think they need. It also really helped that my oldest didn’t get a smart phone until high school — so I could just say that’s what we do in our family (although cell phones were NOT a thing in elementary school for him).
In our house, we have a flip phone that each kid has used. We pay $3/mo for 30 texts or 30 minutes of cell time. This allows them to be in contact with me or specific friends (but they only have 30 texts, so the messages would be informational only). Kids get this phone when they start Jr High — which is about age 11 here.
My kids have after school stuff, and they bike to/from school so this phone gives me a bit of peace of mind (and it can also last over a full week without being charged, so it’s pretty great for forgetful tweens).
At some point during Jr High we let them use (it’s not THEIRS — and frankly, it spends a lot more time in my room than in their hands) an old phone of my husband’s or mine. We wipe everything off of it and we use a parental control software (both apple and android come built in with good options) to add things back. Initially, this phone won’t have cell service. It can only be hooked to the internet.
Most often I start by giving these out on a vacation (they can use it as a camera, and can easily share photos with us (and us them). I may collect them afterwards, as it was just for that occasion.
And then it will become a bit more of a standard, but with rules.
In our home there are two main rules. All electronics must run through The Circle, and all cell phones must be plugged in the kitchen at bedtime. I also encourage them to plug them in before bed time (and normally, they’ve run through their circle time before bedtime, so it works out). We have used an electronics contract before, which can be good for those kids who like to push limits — that way it’s super clear.
If those rules aren’t followed they lose the phone. I start with a day, but it quickly extends to a week (great to make these rules important while you aren’t relying on that phone for communication — which is why I love using the flip phone in the beginning).
BTW, these rules are things I follow too. My phone runs on an adult circle profile (which also filters porn for me) and I plug my phone in the kitchen at night. I personally find them to be good habits in general.
Sometime towards the end of Jr High I give my kids the option to purchase a cell phone contract if they’d like, and have more access to that hand-me-down phone. For the most part we have used Tracfone. I often will give them a year of service as a birthday present and then they can add minutes, data or texts if they’d like. In general a year of service costs around $99 and then they can add the other things as necessary.
But, there’s lots of low cost options out there. I really like that kids are paying for the texts, so they’re not running through texts like crazy, but they could also purchase a plan that allows unlimited texts, that’s an option too.
My kids are super cheap though, so they’ve found other ways to text friends using wifi instead.
They have the option to continue to use the hand-me-down, or upgrade out of their own pockets (my kids both get allowance, and they work doing transcriptions and video editing for my company — so having options with money isn’t unusual). One time a kid washed his phone (frankly, my dad did this once too, so I know it happens) and he had to downgrade to a pretty horrible phone for a while and then decided to purchase a pixel 3a on his own (which was extremely painful for this very thrifty kid).
I have my own cell phone contract with all the bells and whistles. I run a social media marketing company and it is important that I have access to the internet. My kids don’t. They can have a pretty crappy plan that they’re just learning on (just like I don’t let my student driver take my newest car out in the beginning).
All along the way we’re slowly lengthening that leash. Because our kids have fully functioning phones, it is easy to SLOWLY let that leash out, and possibly also draw it back in.
I am really careful of what apps I let them have and I watch how they’re using it (I am clear that I can have full access to texts or apps at any time — but I also really think they deserve some privacy in conversations with friends, I don’t need to read every single text — and I have a lot of trust that they’re making good choices).
We don’t let kids have social media accounts until they are the age listed on the terms and conditions (for instance, you have to be 13 to have an Instagram, same for Tiktok). That makes that easy.
I will, however, let them watch those social media with me. I have accounts on both of them, and we navigate those waters carefully. My daughter knows there is a LOT inappropriate things on Tiktok, and it is SO easy to get sucked in and never leave. BUT, she also knows when we’re waiting in line to get something done, it can be a fun way to waste some time. I’m teaching her that. Just like there is a time and a place to use the stove.
By the time they’re seniors in high school, in the second semester. They have the same rule as me. The phone runs through the circle (no time limits by this point) and they need to plug it in at night. I want them to be able to run their phones as adults.
Because when you leave them at that first apartment or dorm — you’ll hope you taught him all the things he needs to function. You hope you’ve shown him pitfalls. But ultimately those choices are their own. They’re not yours anymore. And by giving them excitement for the many powers in their pocket, rather then them just waiting to paw through the abyss of things you never let him do. All you can really do is hope they use it for good.
SO, what do you think? Tell me in the comments. I’m clearly pretty passionate about this. Gabb wireless must have a great affiliate program because I sure do see every influencer out there schilling it (and yes, they’ve emailed me — and I’ve said no thanks). Remember that when you see them telling how much safer your kids are with that.
Are they? What about when they NEED to use that “stove”? Will they be ready?
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