With many kids in virtual school and isolated from friends and loved ones during the pandemic, having access to smartphones or other devices to maintain relationships has become more important to them than ever. But even before the pandemic, cell phone use among kids was on the rise: A 2019 survey by Common Sense Media concluded that more than half of all U.S. kids owned their own smartphone by age 11 (more than two-thirds by age 12) — and many get them even younger.
But what factors should parents consider when evaluating whether or not it is time to get their kids their first phone? We asked Leah Plunkett, associate professor of legal skills at the University of New Hampshire, a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law, and author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online, for some guidance.
Plunkett says that one of the biggest challenges for parents trying to identify when to give their kid a phone or device is simply not having experience from their own childhood to share on the topic.
“I did not have my first email account until college, and I didn’t have my first cell phone until after college,” Plunkett says. “In many other areas of life, all of us as parents can think about that time we didn’t make the sports team or that time a friend didn’t invite us to a sleepover, but we don’t have the same kind of lived experiences with these devices from an earlier age. There are things that our children know that we don’t know.
“We lack some of the credibility and relatability of lived experiences with devices at younger ages. We also, because we’re figuring out all of the digital life stuff as adults, we are still in our own learning curve.”
So where should parents start? Here are a few tips.
Start having privacy conversations at a young age
“When parents give kids devices, from a privacy perspective, first and foremost parents need to try to explain in age-appropriate ways that the device — even though it looks like something that is just with you in your hand — any device that is connected to [mobile data] or Wi-Fi, is picking up information about you that you may not even realise it’s picking up,” Plunkett says. “Anything that you share on a connected device may not stay with the person you share it with.”
At younger ages, those foundational conversations don’t have to be super detailed. But as kids get older, these conversations should become more nuanced as they become more capable of understanding privacy implications and how data can be used by third parties.
Do your research
Plunkett recommends Common Sense Media as a good starting point for parents looking for ways to starting thinking about digital life for themselves and their kids. The site has a section devoted entirely to cell phones, what kids in different age groups should understand about cell phone usage, and tips for setting rules about screen time.
There are also sections where parents can pose questions and get responses from other parents on topics that include privacy, password management do’s and don’t’s, and making sure to know school policies for devices so you can reinforce those polices with your kids.
Plunkett also says it’s a good idea for parents to go through manuals or user guides for the phones or devices yourself, and include your kids in that process.
“I would also would encourage parents to think about, when they get a phone or device, actually sit down and go through it with your kids,” she says. “Even if it means you have to do a little behind-the-scenes reading for that product’s website or information, try and take your kids through how it actually works. I’m not saying you have to get into the masterclass, but you want to actually talk them through different apps, programs, and settings, and model for them research that you’ve done yourself to figure it out.”
Ask other parents how they handle phones with their kids
Kids are using phones and devices now more than ever to connect with everyone from friends and grandparents to teachers and coaches. How these adults interact with kids on devices might model or influence their own developing behaviours with technology.
That’s why Plunkett recommends being mindful of how those other adults are using devices, and also suggests asking other parents in your network how their kids’ phones are set up.
“For instance, once you give a kid a device, you can ask (other parents), ‘What do your kids have access to?’” Plunkett says. “What are your expectations? That can go a long way in creating a sense of community of norms and expectations. It is important for kids to know, especially right now when so many of us are so bubbled compared to normal life, that they have a sense that parents are still talking to each other.”
Decide on features and a device
If you feel it’s time for your child to have their first phone, there is one particularly effective way to prioritise privacy: “Make the digital device as dumb as possible to still accomplish what you want it to accomplish,” Plunkett says. “I think if you’re looking for a starter phone, it is still possible to get a phone that is not a smartphone; that’s where I would start.”
For parents interested in “dumber” phones as starting points for their kids to do the basics, such as calling home to check in or having a way to call friends or relatives, here are a few options:
- Nokia 3310: This phone allows kids to do some basics–call, text, and take pictures. The battery is long-lasting, but the phone can access the internet and some apps, so it might be more appropriate for older tweens or young teenagers, as it’s not completely “dumb.”
- Jitterbug Flip: This phone was designed with senior citizens in mind, but kids can also benefit from having larger buttons, a long-lasting battery, and bigger screen than most old-school flip phones.
- Jethro SC490: Another phone designed for seniors but with kid-friendly features, such as big buttons and a large screen.
- Kyocera Cadence LTE S2720: This flip phone is praised in reviews for its long battery life, although the quality of the camera is cited as a downside.
If you’re looking to upgrade them from a dumb phone to a smartphone — or you want to make the giant leap straight from zero to smart — here are some more considerations.