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What are the most essential apps to add to my kid's first device?

Get smart tips for gifting your kid a phone--and load it up with all the best apps.

Remember staying up all night assembling a train set, bike, or doll furniture to surprise and delight your kid at first sight? If you're giving your kid a smartphone or tablet this year, you'll need to put in some prep time, too. The first device is a milestone that signals a new chapter in your kid's life, and gives you both the opportunity to discuss raised expectations. With our basic setup tips, rule-setting ideas, and essential apps, you'll avoid some common missteps and set your kid up for success. Pre-holiday homework isn't every parent's idea of a jolly good time, but remember: The gift you're giving—a pathway for your kid to develop life skills--will last a lifetime.

The basics

Set up the phone first. Whether you're gifting a brand-new device or handing down a used one, configure your kid's profile. This allows you to enable limits, such as requiring permission for downloads, blocking content, and shutting off automatically at bedtime. On iPhones, these settings are found in Screen Time; on Android devices, they're in Digital Wellbeing and parental controls.

Curate apps and features. Your kid's new phone should contain only the apps and features you want them to use, and none that you don't. If you're concerned that they may torture their little brother with embarrassing photos, for example, turn off access to the camera until you're comfortable they can use it appropriately. Don't want to give unfettered access to the internet just yet? Delete the browser! Start with our app guide below for recommendations on what to download.

Create a device contract. Use one of our customizable Family Media Agreements to sketch out some guidelines and then schedule some time after the gift-giving to discuss with your kid. Getting their buy-in on the rules and consequences for breaking them is important.

Prep your kid. If your school doesn't offer a digital citizenship curriculum, you may need to take on some skill-building on your own. Walk through the basics of safe, kind, responsible digital use with your kid. Watch this video about safe online communication together and discuss before you hand over the device.

What are the most essential apps to add to my kid's first device?

Your kid's new device is actually a mini-computer. It will be a learning tool, a safety device, an entertainment player, and a social hub. Start kids off on the right foot with the best apps for all these experiences. (Aside from the ones listed below, find out if your kid's school uses any apps for communication or homework practice, and download those, too.)

Learning. Phones have a way of making learning even more engaging.

Maps. These allow your kid to find their way, and for you to know their location.

  • Apple Maps comes preloaded on iPhones.

  • GoogleMaps emphasizes transit routes and food stops.

Music. You want a player with a filter for explicit content, which both of these have. Consider upgrading to an ad-free service.

  • Amazon Music is a great choice for Prime members and Echo owners.

  • Pandora helps kids discover new music.

Audiobooks. Recorded stories are perfect for travel, sick days, bedtime, and family listening.

  • Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts carry an array of audiobooks for kids; they may also contain mature content.

  • Kids Listen: Podcasts for Kids (iOS only) has a good selection of kid-friendly fare.

  • Podcasts (iOS only) is great for older kids.

Organization. Phones can help kids get their stuff together.

  • Notability (iOS only) is a creative note-taking app for kids.

  • Evernote is a powerful organizational tool for older kids.

What about social media? Are there any safe options?

The truth is, your kid really only wants to be on the platforms their friends are on. And their friends are on the most popular social apps like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. The few alternatives, including GeckoLife, have some features that make them slightly safer options (but with privacy concerns—like any social network), but if your kid's friends don't use them, what's the point?

Whether—and when—to allow your kid social media is a conversation you're going to have to have. If you decide to say yes, consider using parental controls to monitor what your kid is doing. Add this topic to your media agreement!

Looking for more ideas?

Here are some of our top recommendations for learning and having fun.

For creative kids

Homework helpers

Interests and hobbies

Play-together games


Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.