When Should You Buy Your Child a Smartphone?
In every child’s life there are certain indelible rites of passage. Her first bike. Her first baseball mitt or roller skates or guitar. Her first car.
Yet none of these is more fraught with uncertainty, dread, and potential bankruptcy for you than her first mobile phone. OK, maybe the car; it’s hard to wrap your phone around a tree or get arrested for texting under the influence. But the hazards your kids will be facing on the information superhighway are just as real as those they’ll encounter on the road, if not quite as lethal.
(Photo: Clark Maxwell on Flickr)
You may also end up spending more for your kid’s data plan than you do on her first car. According to Scratch Wireless, a provider of inexpensive mobiles for teens, parents fork out an average of nearly $10,500 for one child’s phone service between the ages of 12 and 22. In a word, ouch!
A survey by AT&T reveals that the average child receives her first cell phone a smidge past her 12th birthday—and a third of those are smartphones. When should you give your child her first phone? How should you do it? What can you do to minimize the cost and/or pain? Is there any way of getting out of it? The answer to that last question is probably not. Here are the answers to the others.
Nothing says “consumerism gone wild” like the sight of 9-year-olds carrying iPhones. Yet, in the more affluent parts of the country, fourth-graders can be seen carrying digital hand-me-downs from their parents, who reflexively upgrade to the latest Apple or Android handset and think nothing of passing a massively powerful handheld computer to the little squibs.
That’s like putting a Porsche Carrera in the hands of a student driver, says Caroline Jones Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media.
“I think parents often put too much technology in the hands of kids before they’re able to fully understand the consequences of using it,” she says. “And then the kids treat these things as status symbols, instead of tools for communicating with their parents.”
So give younger kids a dumb phone. A simplified feature phone that lets you talk to them and get their location is more than enough for most pre-tweens. Like training wheels on a bike, dumb phones are an excellent way to teach kids how to communicate through technology.
We gave our daughter a Firefly Mobile phone when she was 8. It had two big buttons on it—one dialed Mom, and the other called Dad—plus a third for emergencies. We could control not only whom she called, but also who was allowed to call her. It was cute and colorful, and she lost it within a week.
You can still get a Firefly Mobile Glowphone for $50, then add a pay-as-you-go service plan. A better idea? FiLIP makes a kid-friendly wristwatch that functions as both a location finder and a very basic phone (really). The $200 rubber-coated device is designed for tykes as young as 4. (Look for a review of it coming soon to Modern Family.)