First of all, well done considering this important decision ‘as a family’. Buying a first phone for a child can be a financial commitment but, truth be told, it’s also a decision that can impact on all aspects of their lives: mental health, wellbeing, resilience, friendships and even their learning. It is important to think of it as a significant decision which deserves research and reflection. A smartphone isn’t just a phone. Essentially, it is a hand-held computer that, once connected to the internet, can give access to a digital frontier occupied by five billion people.
As a first step, as a family, you need to think about the ‘why’. Why is this phone needed or wanted? What is the motivation behind considering the purchase? In my experience, parents can genuinely feel worn down by a child requesting a phone. Others can feel irked and possibly guilty that their child doesn’t have one. Could they be missing out? Many parents are sensitive to the fact they are the only parent in the year group who hasn’t given in, and worry that they are being unnecessarily strict. It can be hard to be a standalone voice in a sea of acquiescence!
If you are a parent who is suggesting phone ownership to their child, think carefully about why you feel motivated to do so. Why might you feel anxious or concerned that they don’t own a phone? What are you really worried about? What are you hoping the phone might achieve for them? What is the worst thing that could happen if they didn’t own a phone and how might you/they cope with that? Perhaps talk these FOMO (fear of missing out) feelings through with a friend or co-parent.
If your child is nudging or nagging you about phone ownership, you can initiate a similar process of reflection. Exploratory and curious questions provide healthy starting points. “Tell me why you want one.” “Tell me more about how you think you might use a phone in your daily life.” Invite discussion about known benefits and risks. Ask them what they observe about our use of phones in our lives. Let’s face it, phones can be useful, life-enhancing, sources of entertainment, helpful aids for storing and saving memories, highly distracting time-killers and attention monsters! It’s good to acknowledge their purpose, but also recognise how challenging it can be (even for adults) to establish a healthy relationship with them.
Ask your child, if they did own a phone, how might they navigate the pressure to be online constantly, check messages whilst crossing the road or resist gaming invitations when they have school work to complete? It’s worth raising these challenges early and welcoming their ideas. In talking about these things, we are also modelling that it is good to weigh things up before we make a decision to invest in a new technology. Drilling down can help to surface their motivation for owning a phone; which apps would they want to have? What’s their motivation for wanting to be on them? What do they know about how these apps operate? Are they age-appropriate?
If you find out that your primary-age child is interested in being on WhatsApp to keep up with social activities, there is room to suggest the WhatsApp group lives on your phone. If your child wants a phone to be able to play a particular game, is a phone the only place where they can participate? If they express wanting a phone “because everyone else has one”, talk more broadly about peer pressure and FOMO in general. Show them you care about their feelings and are interested in hearing them. Acknowledge that it can be tough to not follow the crowd but ultimately, it’s important to make decisions for oneself, for good reasons. You might be surprised to learn that WhatsApp actually has a recommended age-rating of 16+. Age ratings seem to be broadly ignored. However, it is optimal to consider them as once we open up the parenting floodgates and ignore them, we might inadvertently give our children a carte blanche to watch, download or view anything they fancy. Ideally, show them that you do care about age ratings and when they express an interest in a game or an app, search it up on the Common Sense Media site and heed user comments.
Often parents quibble about the ‘appropriate’ age to give a child a phone and it is tough to work out what is optimal in this regard. You might think that children typically get a first phone around the age of 10 or 11, at the start of secondary school, but the numbers of much younger children, even those in the early years, being given their own device is on the rise. New research from Ofcom has found that a fifth of three- and four-year-olds now have a phone of their own, and are already using them to watch streaming services, use social media and play games online. These levels of usage are deeply problematic. Imagine all the skills that children in the early years require and need to hone instead of being online? Moreover, we can’t ignore the fact that once a child has access to any digital device, there is a risk of viewing inappropriate content and of inappropriate contact. Parental controls operate like literal stair gates; they are useful to a point, until a child or teen works out how to climb over it, through it or around it.
When you consider buying your child a phone, you need to weigh up if they are mature enough to handle the access that you give them. Are they able to articulate the risks and can they tell you how they would respond when they see something upsetting? What if someone approaches them online? The risks are real. If you follow the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, you will learn that approximately 300,000 adult men have a sexual interest in children in the UK today and, because the pandemic necessitated children’s engagement with the online world for learning, sexual exploitation has been on the rise. Cyberbullying, sexting requests and access to pornography are commonplace features of online life for millions of school-aged pupils.
It is key to warn children, in age-appropriate ways, of the fact that people can wear ‘masks’ online and of the need to be self-protective, as is the establishment of a transparent talking culture at home.
Buying a phone should be accompanied by honest discussion and a clear establishment of family digital values. You will need to cover posting without permission, acceptable versus unacceptable language online, digital hygiene, and of course, the consequences for breaching family values. Ensuring your children feel anchored in your family values, feel good about themselves, and are aware of their ‘sources of support’ are important prerequisites to phone ownership. Take a pre-emptive and honest look at challenges that will inevitably come. Peers might show them inappropriate material, they will be tempted to look things up, they will post things they later regret and have to manage daily digital distractions. Their mental health may be affected if they view material that challenges their view of their own physical bodies or when algorithms drive them towards particular content. Their viewpoint may be shaped by toxic influencers, adverts or role models that advocate particular ways of living or seeing the world. How will they manage what is to come? How can you ready them for that world contained within a pocket-sized device?
“Is my child ready?”, is a question that can only be answered when you consider their motivations, level of emotional maturity, self-esteem, social environment, digital resilience and whether you are ready too! Parental love, closeness, a culture of openness at home, strong digital values and some scaffolding around tricky conversations will stand them in good stead and empower them to be good digital citizens online and responsible phone owners. If you want your child to receive formal guidance on using a first phone, consider this course.
You asked in your original question about smartphones, but there are other options and less expensive ones. Common Sense Media (2023) suggests considering a smartwatch with limited features like TickTalk, a phone with a limited range of functions like the Nokia 225 or a Flip-phone (like the Jitterbug Flip). They also suggest using low-cost, pre-paid carriers such as Twigby or Tello.
Good luck with your decision and remember, there are hundreds of supportive resources in our Tooled Up platform to help you further such as:
Parent-Child Phone Contract – our template for a set of rules for the whole family to agree on before your child is allowed their own phone.
Family Digital Values – create your digital values as a family, using this resource as a guide.
Raising a Child in the Digital Age: Tips for Parents and Carers – an overview of practical tips drawn from research evidence and a discussion about how to stay positive about children’s digital futures, whilst equipping them with tools to stay safe.
Our Top Ten Digital Resources – the Tooled Up library is packed with resources on digital literacy. Here are 10 of our favourites!