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What's the right age to get my kid a phone?

How to know when they're ready--and when to wait a little longer.

Let's get one thing straight: Most kids don't need a phone—and even fewer need a smartphone. Sure, they make some things more convenient (the after-school check-in, homework practice, location tracking). But a must-have? No. Still, according to our latest research, a majority of kids get their first phone by age 11, so you're probably feeling the pressure to decide whether your kid might be ready. And if the answer's yes, they're ready, how will you deal with all the new issues that come along with your kid having their own phone? First, forget age. Focus instead on your kid's needs and their maturity level. Then, factor in your budget and—of course—how ready you are to be the parent of a phone-owning kid. We'll help you ask the right questions, weigh the key considerations, and start important conversations to figure it out.

Quick Take

Getting your kid a phone is a personal decision. If you're not ready and you don't think they need one, wait. On the other hand, if your kid needs a phone for safety reasons or you're ready for them to communicate with friends and family with a little autonomy, you don't have to justify your choice.

Maturity, responsibility, need, and budget are more important than age. Although most kids get their first cellphone by age 11, what matters is your family's needs and your kid's ability to follow your family rules.

Whenever you decide your kid is ready, provide guidance. Handing over a full-featured, pricey device with no restrictions can end in frustration for everyone. Discuss rules and expectations—and consequences for failing to comply.

How do I know if my kid is ready?

Entrusting your kid with what is really a mini-computer capable of almost anything they can think of—at an age when their own "off" switch is iffy—is a pretty big leap. If you think your kid's technological savvy is greater than their ability to use a phone wisely, you may need to say, "No, not yet." But if your kid is showing solid signs of maturity, there may be a phone in their near future. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are they accountable? Do they accept responsibility for their actions, instead of blaming others? If anything happens to the phone, will they come clean about it?
  • Are they considerate? Do they notice how their actions affect others and treat people with respect? Can you rely on them to take out their earbuds, pause their game, and stop texting when human beings are right in front of them?
  • Are they responsible? Do they do their chores and homework without too much prodding and grumbling? Can they keep track of their things, such as backpacks and homework folders? (If not, expect they might lose a phone, too.)
  • Can they follow rules—yours and their school's? If you ask them to text you when they arrive at a destination, will they keep their promise? Can they keep their phone on silent in their backpack until the bell rings?
  • Can they work within boundaries? Can they follow limits you set for minutes talked and apps downloaded?

What are some reasons to wait?

It's kind of funny: Kids rarely use phones to actually make calls. It's the fun stuff—games, videos, texting—that makes kids want one. So when you're deciding whether or not to get them a phone, you have to consider way more than just how much it costs or where you'll charge it at night. Here are some things to consider before you say yes:

General well-being. Psychologist Jean Twenge reports that smartphones may have "destroyed a generation" and interfere with kids' development, mental health, and socialization. While many other factors are at play in kids' lives, her research does raise questions.

Inappropriate content. Our latest research indicates that kids spend most of their cellphone time watching videos, which magnifies the risk of them seeing mature content. And it's way harder to manage when kids are viewing this stuff on their own phones.

Problematic use. Kids admit they spend more time on their phones than they'd like. And a small number of kids really struggle with overuse. Screen "addiction" hasn't been proven, but for various reasons, some kids are more vulnerable to the manipulative and mesmerizing effects of cellphones.

Sleep. Lots of kids sleep with their devices, interrupting precious time their growing brains and bodies need for optimal performance.

Your time. Do you have what it takes to keep up with all the rules you've put in place? Do you have time to do spot checks and tweak settings regularly? Can you listen patiently when your kid tells you which apps and games they want to download?

Are there any positives to getting my kid a cellphone?

Phones get plenty of bad press. Campaigns such as Wait Until 8th, which urges parents to delay getting their kids cellphones until they're in eighth grade, and Away for the Day, which aims to ban phones in middle schools, send convincing messages. But the truth is, no one really knows whether it's "bad" to give a kid a cellphone. In fact, research shows that having involved parents, participating in a variety of activities, getting enough sleep, and having a supportive community (both online and off) can protect kids from some of the potential risks of device use.

Here are some of the positives:

Peace of mind. While you can use apps like Life360 and Find My to locate your kids on a map, the simple act of checking in by text provides a world of relief.

Social connection. For kids, the phone can be a real lifeline. Friends, validation, support—and, yes, fun—are just a tap away.

Creativity. Kids can record video, perfect their pics, even write a novel using only their phone and imagination. Independence. Phones allow kids to spread their wings a little bit—and that's a good thing.

Convenience. You can connect your entire family to a group schedule, alert kids to changes in the day's plan, and update everyone on your status.

Learning. More teachers are assigning online work now, and phones offer a way for kids to study, check their assignments, and even take a photo of the homework assignment teachers write on the board.

What's the safest way to give my kid a phone?

Before you hand over a phone, figure out which parental control settings are available within the phone itself. On Android phones, use the Digital Wellbeing settings (you'll need to download Google's Family Link app to both your phones). On iPhones, set up Family Sharing and then use Screen Time settings. (Check out the member center for detailed instructions. But settings will only go so far. It's really important to establish clear rules and expectations. Set up a phone contract. You'll have lots of opportunities to model healthy habits, check in on whom they're talking to and how they're feeling, and guide them toward the behavior you want to see.

Here are some ideas:

Disable fun features and let kids "earn" them. In the phone's settings, you can turn off features and block access to apps and functions (like the camera). After your kid demonstrates responsibility, you can activate them.

Establish rules for sharing images. Photos and videos can really get kids into trouble, mainly because they have a hard time thinking through the consequences of sharing inappropriate images, or they underestimate the impact a shared image will have on someone else. Set rules—for example: Don't share anything that might make your parents uncomfortable.

Set time limits, especially for multitasking. Phones are designed to hold our attention longer than is healthy for us. Kids know this but have a hard time self-regulating. And the double-screen thing (homework on the computer and a nearby phone for texting) is proven to reduce concentration. Use the methods that work for your kid—timers, parental controls, goals, etc.—to help them learn to manage their own use.

Ban phones in the bedroom at night. Nothing good happens when a kid has a phone in their bedroom at night. Collect devices and store them for your kids until morning.

Plan for spot checks. Especially with a first phone, you'll want to do safety checkups to make sure kids are interacting appropriately, using approved apps, and following your rules.

What are some good options for my kid's first phone?

Though kids luuurve smartphones, they're expensive and invite more risks than stripped-down models. For your kids' first phone, consider these options:

  • A prepaid phone from a no-contract service such as Boost Mobile, Cricket, or Tello.
  • A "feature" phone with large icons and a limited range of functions such as the Tracfone ZTE Blade T2 or the Nokia 3310.
  • A flip phone like the Jitterbug Flip, which is designed for seniors but great for kids due to large numbers and GPS tracking.
  • A service plan with built-in parental controls such as Verizon's Just Kids, T-Mobile's FamilyMode, AT&T Secure Family, and Comcast Xfinity xFi.
  • Starter phones designed especially for kids, including KidsConnect KC2 Phone, VTech KidiBuzz G2, and Verizon GizmoWatch with two-way voice calling and messaging.
  • Your old smartphone with apps you've preapproved. You can even shut off Wi-Fi and data if you want them using only the calling features.

You can do this!

What makes this stuff hard is that we're navigating a world that's new to us—and we're supposed to be in charge! But, real talk: So long as you're communicating with your kid and staying involved in their media life, you're already doing important work.

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.com, 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.