At What Age Should a Kid Get a Phone? We Asked a Therapist, a Digital Safety Expert and Fellow Parents

what age should a kid get a phone universal 3
Dasha Burobina for PureWow

Most of us parents can’t survive a day without our smartphones (let’s be honest), so it’s no wonder our kids want what we've got. But the question of at what age should a kid get a phone is a bit complicated, which is why we asked a family therapist, a parenting expert, a digital safety expert and a handful of parents to weigh in. Read on—no mindless scrolling, please—for the consensus. (Spoiler: The correct decision has more to do with maturity and necessity than it does the age of your child.)

Meet the Experts:

  • Cassandra Fallon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Regional Clinic Director at Thriveworks, a nationwide in-person and online therapy service. Cassandra specializes in parenting and behavioral problems.
  • Katie Greer is a digital safety expert who travels the globe educating students, parents, and global corporations about technology and all things digital safety.
  • Jillian Amodio is a licensed social worker (LCSW), parenting expert and founder of Moms for Mental Health.

PureWow: What is an appropriate age to give a kid a smartphone?

CF: Answers to these sorts of questions are not universal, unfortunately. It can be based on the child’s personality, maturity and the family's needs. For example, if a child walks home from school by themselves at age 10, it may be a helpful tool to have. However, it may not be helpful at all for a child of 12 who has broken multiple phones or has misused devices for inappropriate activities. A parent may ask themselves some questions about if a phone is a need or want for their child, and if the purpose is for safety (physical, emotional or otherwise).

KG: It varies and is something parents and caregivers should consider very carefully before just handing one over. It’s important to consider things like maturity, which may be different depending on the child. It’s also important to keep in mind that it’s a fully-accessible outlet to the world, and that is a giant responsibility—something young, underdeveloped frontal lobes aren’t necessarily ready for yet.

JA: This is a difficult thing to justify by age and should instead be considered based on the unique circumstances of each family, the reasoning behind considering a phone for a child, and the maturity, critical thinking skills, and expectations of the child themselves.

PureWow: What are the benefits of giving a kid a smartphone?

CF: Phones have internal tracking devices that can be used to ensure a child is safe from running away or from being taken or kidnapped. In fact, if a child is in danger, this tool can be the difference between life and death, especially considering that public phones are few and far between these days. It can promote safety and comfort for separated or blended families as well—giving kids a means of contacting their loved ones when they wish. It is also an opportunity to develop applicable life skills as a child; supervision and support from a trusted adult can teach young kids how to care for and use a phone appropriately.

KG: I’d say the main benefits are the fairly obvious ones: Smartphones facilitate communication with family, school and work, and can be particularly helpful in emergency situations.

JA: Having a way for a child to contact a parent or caregiver is always a plus. This can give the child a chance to show trustworthiness, maturity and responsibility as well. There may be social benefits for the child depending on their peer groups, but it is important to weigh the potential benefits with any risks and downsides.

PureWow: And what about the downsides?

CF: Like any tool, phones can be misunderstood and misused, and children can be taken advantage of by those who mean them harm on the other end. There have been consistent concerns with adults poaching children, ‘catfishing’ them and luring them into dangerous situations. Appropriate parental oversight can minimize these risks, as well as planned, ongoing conversations over how to interact with others over devices—not unlike teaching children ‘stranger danger’ with in-person interactions. 

KG: Smartphones are often too powerful of a tool for kids’ brains to process and use responsibly. There are alternatives, such as watches, that can satisfy the needs of families in certain situations—and often, given the science and statistics around screen addiction, it’s better to hold off or provide an alternative, especially if they’re middle school-age or younger.

JA: Social media is a leading cause of mental health struggles in children. While parents can enforce rules and boundaries, and place restrictions on devices, children can potentially have access to social media and other websites and digital content that may be damaging to their well-being. This can also cause problems with attention span, and technology addiction, and create more room for boundary-pushing and further arguments regarding the use of technology and access to digital content. Phones can also increase the risk of encountering struggles with cyberbullying, and depending on the age of the child, parents should also be aware of the risks (psychological, physical, legal, etc.) of sexting, too.

Of course there are also monetary risks when entrusting the care of an expensive device to a child who may very well lose or damage the device unintentionally. Phones, especially smartphones, may also give kids a false sense of anonymity which may allow them to engage in behaviors they might not otherwise involve themselves in. Another false sense of security comes from the notion that the phone is a safety feature; while this is true to some degree, the reality is that they offer only vague protection, such as location tracking, but do little to actually ensure a child's physical safety.

PureWow: What are some rules that parents can put in place when giving their kid a smartphone?

CF: For starters, parents should consider the type of device that can be used for the family’s purposes and familiarize themselves with the parental controls available on said device. It’s also wise to take into account the amount of time children spend on devices; there are different theories for having restrictions versus open freedom for children to learn self-regulation.

Attentiveness to what their children are watching is another important factor—videos or other content that seems child-friendly may have underlying lessons that are not aligned with values of the family or responsible behaviors (i.e., how to cheat on tests, how to steal from stores, how to otherwise misuse systems or violate social norms). Knowing your child best will help develop guidelines that fit the child’s needs and abilities. It’s also OK to have different rules for different children, though it can be hard to explain, but ultimately each child needs different types of guidance and support.

KG: It’s truly like a car—like I said, a huge responsibility. For this reason, there should be mandatory off times, along with a ‘no devices in the bedroom’ rule. Whatever you decide, it’s important to have these conversations BEFORE handing phones over, but it’s often overlooked. If caregivers can put their rules and expectations in place BEFORE handing over these phones, kids can expect them out of the gate.

JA: I recommend that parents create a digital citizenship contract outlining expectations on usage and behaviors, as well as clear definitions of who owns the device and who is merely being allowed to borrow it. Definitely set parameters for what hours phones may be used, and consider banning them from bedrooms, especially at night. Also, I think parents should be allowed to monitor phone use and content as well, and this can be done in a way that encourages mutual respect and transparency rather than control and power. It’s important to have difficult yet pertinent conversations on topics such as sexting, digital abuse, cyber bullying, etc. Part of this means talking openly about consequences for misuse.

PureWow: Keeping in mind that children and families are all different, when did you decide to give your own child(ren) a phone, or when do you plan to?

KG: I have two children, 10 and 11 (4th and 6th grades) and neither of them have a phone. I can’t say the ages that they’ll get them, as I’m not entirely sure yet. But at this point, there is absolutely no need for mine to have them. They know how to ask a grownup if they need to be in touch with me, know my number and can get by that way. My daughter came home from her first dance recently, and although she’s been begging me for her own phone, she thanked me for not getting her one. She said all kids were on their phones the entire time, and it wasn’t enjoyable. With that, we’ll hold off until it’s absolutely necessary—which could be high school, even though that’s not very common.

JA: I have two children, ages 8 and 11. I gave them both gizmo watches last year when they went back to school after the pandemic and started playing with kids on our block. They are quite locked down and can only call the numbers we program in. There is no real texting feature available on them other than a few pre-programmed messages. There is also a gps tracker. That said, my 11-year-old is desperate for a phone and some/many of her peers do have them. We are not quite there yet but we know it will likely be in the near future. She is currently in 6th grade. By 7th or 8th grade she will likely have her own device, but it will be monitored and restrictions for social media access will continue.

...And Here’s What Parents Have to Say

Definitely don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses, but if you feel you might benefit from the perspective of other parents, you can find it below.

“I’m OK with cell phones in middle school, or whatever age you begin increasing your child’s travel autonomy, such that they might be commuting to and from school independently (on a subway, walking alone, etc.) At that age, I would permit a phone with parental controls that can only be used for phone and text to limited people and had no internet. For full access to a smartphone, high school seems appropriate. And only after they had proven some level of increased self-control and we had discussed phone safety and the effect of phone/media addiction.” —Lynn, Minnesota mom-of-one

“I have an almost 8-year-old and a 5-year-old, and my daughter, the older one, is already bugging me for a phone, which I think is absurd. I’ll probably consider getting her a smartphone with parental controls in place when she’s in 7th grade. But really, until my kids are old enough to be left home alone for a few hours at a time, there’s no reason for them to have a phone. They’d just waste the whole day playing games and messing around on YouTube, and I’d waste my whole day fighting with them to put it away. And frankly, the thought of my kids glued to a phone is just kind of depressing, you know?” —Marion, California mom-of-two

“Personally, I don’t like the idea of my kids having cell phones until their teenage years, but I think this is a complicated issue! My cousin, for example, gave his 7-year-old a phone so that they could send each other funny gifs and sweet notes when he stays at his mom’s house (they’re separated). And it also depends on where you live. I’m in a city so my kids won’t be walking home alone from school anytime soon, but if I was someplace more suburban and my 10-year-old was walking to school by herself, then maybe I’d feel differently. I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong answer here.” —Alex, New Jersey mom-of-two

“I think kids should get a phone the first time they are on their own to get to and from school, or when there's not as supportive a system after school and they're more autonomous. For us, that was the first year of middle school. Although, when he gets home and is back under our care, we take the phone. And he knows we read all of his text messages and don't allow social.” – Ria, New York mom-of-one

“If a kid is commuting on their own, then some manner of phone is a good idea. A smartphone has a tracker, which is useful in some ways for safety. But personally, I would hesitate to say that they need any other feature on a smartphone. I wouldn’t want my kiddo to have earphones on while commuting alone, and most social media sites have age requirements, meaning it’s actually illegal for a kid under that age to connect anyway.” —Lauren, Maine mom-of-one

“I let my daughter and son each have one at 8 (for the games, Wi-Fi off) so they’d stop bugging me to use mine!” – Jo, California mom-of-two

“I think this is super dependent on where you live. In NYC, kids are getting phones as young as 9 (sometimes 8) or they are getting a watch so they can text parents in an emergency. All kids have them by 5th or 6th grade, whereas in the suburbs it’s later.” – Dana, New York mom-of-one

Bottom Line

There’s no hard and fast rule for when it’s appropriate for a child to have a smartphone (although middle school seems to be the general consensus among the experts and parents we spoke with). So what’s a parent to do when faced with a kid who is begging for a phone and swears that all their friends have one? Given the well-documented risks of excessive screen time and some of the dangers that smartphones can pose in terms of content access, experts (and parents, too) stress that it’s not your child’s age that matters as much as their level of maturity. For some families, that might mean giving your 9-year-old a device, while others might choose to wait a few more years. Either way, parents will want to put some safety measures and expectations in place.

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