Your child's first smartphone: What you should consider before buying

If you are the parent of a tween or teen, you have likely heard this question in some form on repeat: Can I have my own phone?

As more Americans are vaccinated, restrictions placed on our daily lives to protect us from COVID-19 are being lifted. Among those changes is a broader full-time return to school, and all the other obligations that come with it, from after-school sports to orchestra.

It's what prompted Kim Miller, a personal trainer in Atlanta, to get her 12-year-old middle schooler his first phone on his birthday in November.

"Once he’s back into regular activities, since COVID is kind of dying out, that’s when I’m going to need him to have a phone," Miller said.

But it's more than just convenience for parents. Both kids and parents face pressure to upgrade to a personal smartphone as classmates break out their new iPhone or Android smartphones.

So what should you consider when introducing your children to their first smartphone? We talked to parents and experts about what to know when approaching that big tech milestone.

Experts tell USA TODAY age isn't the most important factor when it comes to parents buying their kids their first phone.
Experts tell USA TODAY age isn't the most important factor when it comes to parents buying their kids their first phone.

Age is not as important as you think

According to a 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center, about 73% of American parents believe 12 and older is the right age for kids to have their own phones.

However, parents appear more open to getting their children smartphones at younger ages. A 2019 census on media use among teens and tweens conducted by Common Sense Media found 19% of 8-year-olds had their own phone, up from 11% in 2015.

Experts tell USA TODAY there are other factors to consider beyond whether your child is old enough to have a phone.

"Not every child is ready for a smartphone at the same age," said Titania Jordan, chief parent officer for Bark, an app parents can use to monitor their children's smartphone activity. "Some children are ready younger. Some children are ready older. Every child is different, and you have to make that decision based on your child’s emotional and mental maturity."

What should parents consider?

Elisabeth Sylvan, the managing director of Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, said the decision really depends on each family and their approaches to using technology. Parents should weigh factors such as whether their kids are responsible enough to not lose a phone.

"That’s a great conversation to have with your kids," said Sylvan. "Why does the kid want the phone? How would it be useful for the kid? How would it be useful for the family?"

Parents might also want to get their kids a phone at a time when they are moving more freely and wanted a way to keep in touch, said Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the impacts of mobile phones on young people.

"A lot of time the decision on when a child should have a phone is based on when the parents believe their child needs to have a phone," said Odgers.

You got the phone: Now what?

Jordan said before even letting your child access a smartphone, parents should research the parental controls available on both iPhone and Android.

On the iPhone, parents can restrict purchases from iTunes or Apple's App Store, the types of apps available, the types of music, movies or TV shows they can view, and the websites they visit. Parents can also set up Family Sharing where kids can request apps or content they want for their phone.

Google has similar systems in place for its Google Play store if you own an Android phone. Controls baked into the device will vary by manufacturer. For example, Samsung's Galaxy phones include parental controls to manage screen time.

Parents also have the option to use monitoring apps like OurPact or Bark, which will connect to apps used for text messaging, email and social media to track the messages your kids send and receive.

But parents must stay vigilant. Danny Sawyer, an event manager from Bristol, Virginia, bought his daughters, ages 18 and 15, their first phones at 13. Among the tools Sawyer used was Verizon Smart Family to keep tabs on their activity. It didn't work as well as hoped.

"The girls always worked around it by turning their phones off and taking out the Sim card for a couple minutes," he said during an interview by email with USA TODAY.

Sawyer said regular phone checks are probably the most important thing parents can do when their kids get a new device.

Parents talk tech: How many likes would you give raising kids in the age of social media?

Miller said her ground rules for her son's smartphone use will focus on "hours that it’s available to him."

"The phone will also never live in his room," she said.

Getting our kids to stick to these rules could come down in part to how well parents model those behaviors ourselves, even if it means the difficult task of putting down our phone for a spell.

"If modeling is hard, talking about when you use your phone and when you don’t, coming up with ways of dealing with that within your family, and having that be an ongoing discussion, is really important," said Sylvan.

Don't forget tech etiquette

As the pandemic taught many parents, kids are very tech savvy. They can Zoom, create Google Slide presentations, or learn basic HTML.

But Sylvan said teaching kids how to communicate with their phones is equally important. Showing children how to be respectful to others via text or which information is needed in a text environment is just as critical as teaching kids how to speak to others verbally when they're younger.

"Tone is really hard to judge in text," she said. "People can misunderstand tone very easily in a written format. I think that’s where some kids get into trouble with their friends."

Before Miller's son gets a new phone, he used a Pinwheel phone, a kid-friendly mobile phone with a curated selection of apps, but lost it after struggling to text back friends and family. "He’d wait like two weeks and maybe text them back."

Miller said she feels a little anxious about her son's technological leap but feels comfortable with the change. "I know that my son knows his limits, and we’ve established that."

Follow Brett Molina on Twitter: @brettmolina23.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: An iPhone for kids? What you need to know about their first smartphone