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So Your Kid Wants A Phone – Now What?

When is the right age to give your child a phone – and how can you set boundaries?
HuffPost UK

Kids and mobile phones are ever so fond of one another, but giving a youngster a phone is fraught with concern.

Grooming, cyberbullying, sexting, access to extreme materials, running up huge bills, refusing to engage with anything other than that glowing rectangle in their hand... there are a whole load of reasons to avoid getting your child one.

Perhaps it’s because of this, then, that there’s an increasing market for ‘dumbphones’ – devices designed for calls and text messages, but not much else. American entrepreneur, Stephen Dalby, founded Gabb in the US, a company selling mobiles with severely limited features (no browser, no games, no social media).

But if you can’t find an equivalent in the UK – or you’d prefer to just get your child a normal phone – how do you know when they’re ready?

Knowing what age to give your child a phone is tricky – it’s hard to point to one age and say, yes, that’s when they’ll be ready – but experts we spoke to suggest there’s no need for a child to have one before secondary school.

According to research in 2018, the average age for children to get a phone is 10. But in some communities, mobile phones are so ubiquitous that not giving your child one until they approach their teens is a Big Deal.

Others prefer to wait a bit longer. Bill Gates, for example, previously spoke about not letting his kids have phones until they were 14. “We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier,” the father-of-three told the Mirror. In short, every family is different.

“We are giving our kids way more than ‘just a phone’ when we give them a smartphone.”

- Dr Kristy Goodwin, digital wellbeing speaker

Concerns raised about giving kids their first phone is more about what else they will then have access to. “We are giving our kids way more than ‘just a phone’ when we give them a smartphone,” says Dr Kristy Goodwin, a digital wellbeing speaker. “They have a camera, the internet, apps and a plethora of other potential dangers when they access a phone.”

And Professor Peter Fonagy, CEO of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, agrees. “It’s the function of a phone that really matters, far more than the physical reality of having one,” he says. “It’s what a kid uses it for.”

We can’t ignore the advantages of children having them. It’s great to be able to keep in touch with family and friends, says Fonagy, who stresses that phones aren’t inherently a bad thing. “After age nine or ten your main social network is other children, and using a phone to maintain that network seems, to me, good,” he says. He gives the example of when his daughter was bullied at school and was able, while sitting on her own and deeply upset, to reach out to her parents to share her distress.

However, while it’s one thing to use a phone to keep in touch with people, it’s another to use it instead of doing those things – and phones offer plenty of opportunities to shut ‘real life’ out. It’s also not so great to disrupt sleep by sitting tapping away at it under the duvet all night.

“Using the phone as a device simply for social media or games and not to engage with people is less helpful,” says Fonagy. “There’s little doubt that for some children, particularly those that are more vulnerable in terms of emotional resilience, it can be a source of distress and hurt.”

Donald Iain Smith via Getty Images

Ensuring your child has a healthy relationship with their phone is important. If you’re thinking about getting them one, follow these three suggested rules.

Trust your judgement

Many parents worry their child will be socially ostracised if they don’t have a smartphone – and their kids will tell them that too, says Dr Goodwin.

“I understand that is a legitimate concern, but I suggest that parents fact check that because the reality is that that is not always the case,” she says. “Parents know their kids best and if they have any doubt or reservation about dunking their child or teen in the digital stream just yet, trust that judgement.”

Goodwin adds that kids are “curating their digital DNA” as soon as they get a smartphone, so if they lack the self-control and responsibility to use one, it can have an impact on them in the short and long-term. Your judgement is crucial here.

Establish boundaries

As parents you’re the “pilot of the digital plane”, says Goodwin, so you need to establish and enforce boundaries around how, where, what and when technology is used.

She suggests the idea of a restricted model: “I strongly suggest that parents install internet-filtering tools on smartphones when they’re first introduced to kids to help minimise – they certainly won’t prevent – online risks.”

It’s worth noting the Monqi handset and Morotola’s Moto range have been praised for its parental controls – plus there are a range of parental control software apps available. Do your research before buying a phone.

Monitor their usage (and yours)

Whatever age you decide your child can have a phone, it’s not a one-and-done decision. Phone use needs to be monitored and discussed, rather than just allowed to become as large a part of your child’s life as they want.

Professor Fonagy says a lot of parents lecture their children on the dangers of smartphones, while rarely putting their own down. “It’s difficult for adolescents to see their parent using phones to excess while they are told they can’t, which doesn’t seem fair,” he says. He suggests families monitor their child’s usage, perhaps by coming up with consistent rules for the whole family – everyone’s phone going in a drawer at 7 o’clock, for instance.

“Parents need to regulate, through negotiation, the use of phones, but at the same time, moderate their own behaviour,” he says. “They should be family rules, not just rules for the younger members of the household.”