If only more things in life came with training wheels; a child’s first smartphone could certainly use some.
Like taking off the training wheels and riding out into the neighborhood for the first time, a smartphone opens an entirely new world for children. There are apps, social media, group chats with friends, TikTok stars, and the joy of simply being “in” with their classmates and friends through the shared experience of the internet.
For parents, the similarities between first bike rides and first phones continue. You love the growing independence that this moment brings, yet you also wonder what your child will encounter out there when you’re not around. The good and the bad. How have you prepared them for this? Are they really ready?
When is my child ready for a smartphone?
That’s the question, isn’t it—when is my child ready for that first smartphone?
For years, your child has dabbled on the internet, whether that was playing on your phone while they were little, letting them spend time on a tablet, or using a computer for school. Along the way, there have been teaching moments, little lessons you’ve imparted about staying safe, how to treat others online, and so forth. In other words, you’ve introduced the internet to your child in steps. Giving them their own phone is yet another step, but a big one.
Yet those teaching moments and little lessons are things that they’ll lean on when they’re on their own phone—whether those were about “stranger dangers” online, proper online etiquette, and the difference between safe and unsafe websites. Understanding if your child has a firm foundation for navigating all the highs and lows of the internet is a strong indication of their readiness. After all, safely entering the always-online world of having a smartphone demands a level of intellectual and emotional maturity.
Is there a right age for a first smartphone?
Good question. We do know that smartphone usage by children is on the rise. For example, research from Common Sense Media indicates that 53% of 11-year-olds have a smartphone, a number that jumps to 69% at age 12. That’s quite a bit of smartphone use by tweens, use which may be lightly monitored or not monitored at all. Note the percentage of ownership by age and the volume of screen time that follows in the infographic below:
Source: Common Sense Media
Why the rise, particularly in very young owners? However, does that mean 26% of nine-year-olds should have unfettered and all-day access to the internet in the palm of their hands? That’s a topic for you to decide for yourself and for the good of your family. However, if the notion of a third grader with a smartphone seems a little on the young side to you, there are alternatives to smartphones.
Smartphone alternatives for young children
If keeping in touch is the primary reason for considering a smartphone, you have internet-free options that you can consider:
- Flip phones: Often sturdy and low cost, these are great devices for keeping in touch without the added worry and care of internet access. Likewise, it’s a good way to help younger children learn to care for a device—because it may get dropped, kicked, wet, maybe even lost. You name it.
- Smart watches for kids: A quick internet search will turn up a range of wearables like these. Many include calling features, an SOS button, and location tracking. Do your research, though. Some models are more fully featured than others.
- First phones for kids: Designed to include just the basics, these limited-feature smartphones offer a great intermediary step toward full smartphone ownership. In the U.S., brands such as Pinwheel and Gabb may be worth a look if you find this route of interest.
In all, for a younger child, one of these options may be your best bet. They’ll help you and your child keep in touch, develop good habits, and simply learn the basic responsibilities and behaviors that come with using a device to communicate with others.
Preparing you and your family for the first smartphone
Now’s a perfect time to prepare yourself for the day when your child indeed gets that first proper smartphone. That entails a little research and a little conversation on your part. Topics such as cyberbullying, digital literacy, social media etiquette, and so on will be important to get an understanding on. And those are just the first few.
A good place to start is your circle of family and friends. There, you can find out how they handled smartphone ownership with their children. You’ll likely hear a range of strategies and approaches, along with a few stories too, all of which can prepare you and your child.
I also suggest carving out a few minutes a week to read up on our McAfee blog safety topics so that you can have all the knowledge and tools you need. We blog on topics related to parenting and children quite regularly, and you can get a quick view of them here:
- Stranger Danger
- Keeping Your Kids Safe from Predators Online
- Building Digital Literacy
- The Who, What, and How of Cyberbullying
- Screen Time and Sleep Deprivation in Kids
- Lessons Learned: A Decade of Digital Parenting
- Social Influencers and Your Kids
- Getting Kids to Care About Their Safety Online
Time for the first smartphone
Having a smartphone will change not only their life, but yours as well. Relationships will evolve as your child navigates their new online life with their middle school and high school peers. (Remember those days? They weren’t always easy. Now throw smartphones into the mix.)
With that, give you and your child one last checkpoint. The following family talking points for owning a smartphone offer a solid framework for conversation and a way to assess if your child, and you, are truly ready for what’s ahead.
Once smartphone day arrives, it’s time to put two things in place—mobile security and parental controls:
- Get mobile security for your child’s Android phone or mobile security for iPhones. This will provide your child with basic protection, like system scans, along with further protection that steers your child clear of suspicious websites and links.
- Use parental controls for your child’s phone. I also suggest being open and honest with them about using these parental controls. In effect, it’s a tool that extends your parental rules to the internet, so be clear about what those rules are. A good set of controls will let you monitor their activity on their phone, limit their screen time, plus block apps and filter websites.
Plenty. And as a mom myself, I rely heavily on those parental controls I put into place, but I also stay close to what they are doing online. It’s a bit of a mix. I simply ask them what’s going on and do a little, monitoring too. That could be asking them what their favorite games and apps are right now or talking about what playlists they’re listening to. This keeps communication open and normalizes talking about the phone/ their internet usage and what’s happening on it. Communication like this can come in handy later on should they need your help with something that’s occurred online. By talking now, the both of you will have an established place to start.
In all, take children’s smartphone ownership in steps and prepare them for the day those training wheels come off so the both of you can fully enjoy that newfound independence of life with a smartphone.
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