The Ideal Age For a First Cell Phone

I’ve been getting so many thought-provoking questions from readers this summer, including a very short one that came in last week: I am a longtime reader of your blog and wanted to know, what age did your kids get a phone? — Michelle

I have a few thoughts on this topic, but I’m especially interested in hearing how you’ve handled this at your house. I really believe this is an area where we all need to share what we’ve learned so far. So I hope you’ll chime in. Here are my thoughts.

1) Our 3 youngest kids, currently aged 12, 11 and 7, don’t have cell phones. They have access to screens — the family iPad, the family desktop iMac — but they don’t have their own phones, or even iPods. At one point, our son Oscar was set to inherit a hand-me-down phone that he could use as an iPod, but it ended up being old and faulty and didn’t really work out.

Our 3 oldest kids, currently aged 15, 18 and 19, all received their first phone during high school. When we moved from France to Oakland, Ralph started his sophomore of high school, and Maude started her freshman year, and they both got their first official cell phones as the school year started. In France, we had experimented with some basic flip-phones for them to use in emergencies, but their first real data phones didn’t happen till we moved back to the States.

Apparently, that makes us somewhat unusual. Surveys show that back in 2010, 69% of 11-14 year olds, and 31% of kids aged 8-10 had cell phones. I assume the numbers are even higher these days. But, I don’t think it’s as strange as the statistics makes it sound. I feel like we know many families here, with kids in middle school, who don’t give their kids cell phones yet.

2) Even though I’m listing it second, my first thought whenever this topic comes up is that: No one can realistically have a good answer yet. Meaning, we have no models of what’s proven to work and what’s harmful. The iPhone just turned 10 years old a couple of weeks ago. This whole smart phone culture is still so new that good research doesn’t exist yet on what the long-term benefits or problems are.

Sure, there are new articles written all the time, lamenting the use of phones (or screens in general) for kids. But a lot of the conclusions are still guesswork at this point.

I bring this up for two reasons. One, don’t expect to get it right. Our kids are a giant experiment. The way we as a generation of parents are approaching screens might be awesome, or it might be horrible, and it’s likely somewhere in the middle. But instead of despairing, take heart, because we’re all in this together and whatever problems do come up, we’re not going to be alone in tackling them. Which brings up reason number two. We need to share what we are learning. When we find a new rule or policy that works, we need to tell people about it. When we get it wrong and a plan backfires, we need to tell people about it. We need to learn from each other.

3) Related to what I just mentioned, the landscape of cell phones is still changing. I remember going to a community meeting for parents about 9 or 10 years ago when we lived in New York. A police officer gave a talk about keeping our kids safe said it was a no -brainer: a cell phone made kids safer and we should all give cell phones to our teens. Would he still agree with this advice a decade later? Do the negative cell-phone stories that make the news (often featuring predators and bullies) outweigh the convenience of knowing where your kids are via texting?

4) From a parenting angle, once you’ve chosen a phone for your kids that works with your family budget, you may soon discover that the management of the phone is harder than deciding what age is appropriate. Are you willing and available to take the phone away each night and remove that temptation? How do you want to handle privacy for your kids? Are you going to read their texts? Look at their photos? (Personally, I would recommend YES to both of these things.) Will you be monitoring what they post on their social media accounts? Do you have time to follow the Instagram accounts that are following your kid?

Making sure your kids aren’t getting into trouble with their phone — even accidentally — can feel overwhelming.

5) When a child should be given a cell phone really ends up being a personal decision based on all sorts of factors that may or may not apply to my life. For some kids, a phone may be the closest thing to a laptop or desktop they have access to — their phone may be a key resource and educational tool. Other kids may need a phone to safely access transportation (like Uber or a bus schedule). For many families, a phone for their kids may be out of the question budget-wise. Not just buying the phone, but the added cost of another data line too. All that to say: what works for you may not work for your neighbor.

Now I’d love to hear: What has worked for your family so far? Have you set any guidelines or rules about what age you like to give a first phone that have turned out to be reliable? For those who have older kids, would you do it the same way again? If not, what would you advise a younger parent? What are your worries about kids and cell phones? Have they proven to come true? And how old were you when you got your own first cell phone? Do you remember?

P.S. — How to properly clean your tech. And a fun budgeting game for teens.

98 thoughts on “The Ideal Age For a First Cell Phone”

  1. We don’t have a land line anymore, and we have a child with a disability that has lots of doctor’s appointments. After having a late appointment that meant I wasn’t home when my big girls got off the bus (8 and 10 and a very rare occurrence, and they did have an emergency key), and I had no way to contact them, I bought a smart phone that is a tracfone off amazon. For a $30 phone where I spend $30 every three months, it is a worthwhile purchase. It has also come in handy when one child opts to go to a summer playground program where she wants to be able to get ahold of me and can bring the phone. That said, I only plugged in a few numbers and they don’t know how to access any others, and I turned off data. They can use wifi at home to send what’s app messages to grandparents and such, but everyone has access to the phone and it lives in the living room. It will be a long time before they get a phone of their own. That said, I’m a stay at home mom, married to their dad. If I was a single parent or they had two households, or if I worked regularly, I can easily see how I would provide a phone, even at 10, 8, and 6.

  2. Both my kids got hand me down iPhones at age 10. At that age, given that we live in an urban area, they walk to and from school on their own, go to after school activities on their own, and I can track where they are. I think it really depends on where you live and your lifestyle whether your child has a phone. It is the equivalent of being a latchkey kid back in the 70s – it is the necessity of a single working parent who wants to know whether their child finished their homework properly (yes, my kids text me their completed homework every day at 6pm) or went home directly after soccer practice.

  3. My kids are still young (1, 3, and 6), so this isn’t an issue yet, but I’m wondering how those who say they monitor their kids’ social media accounts actually do this. It is so easy to create numerous different accounts–how do you really know that you’re seeing what your kid is actually doing? For what it’s worth, I didn’t get a cell phone until I was 21, senior year in college, and I lived abroad in France for a year during college without one. I also had a job as a teen in high school that required I go into the city from the suburbs on mass transit by myself occasionally. So I’m not at all convinced that they are actually necessary for safety (although as a parent, I can certainly see how they’d seem reassuring–I mean aside from the worrisome internet/social media stuff, of course!). It’s such a dilemma.

  4. We don’t really follow the norm in our community. Our kids get an iPod when they’re 14 and a smart phone when they’re 16 and start driving. They’re pretty much the only kids at school that don’t have phones, but they’ve survived.

    My son who was in 6th grade last year told me that another student in his class would sit in the back and watch porn on his iPhone every single day. That’s reasoning enough for me to stick to our strict plan on phones. So very sad.

    1. We are the same too…I have 13 and 16 year old boys and when my oldest started high school sports with lots of away meets and games, we got him a phone, no data just call and text. Our school district requires use of iPads and Chromebooks so they do have technology outlets which are hard enough to keep on top of…no social media period.

      We know kids who have had phones since elementary school…we are definately the ‘weird’ family. I know a few parents who felt the same pressure and the constant bugging from their kids. But we stand firm…

  5. I’m a bit older than today’s kids/teens (I just turned 23) but my parents were very strict about phones: we got a phone (and a track phone at that) when we went to college (that’s right! college!) and we were expected to pay for everything. I simply used a trackphone without data throughout college (which I just finished). My parents don’t have smartphones and I couldn’t just join on their plan, so that was all I could reasonably afford. I had access to Facebook starting at age 16 (also a strict rule in our house) and could use the computer for email or to access normal websites before that on our desktop. In college, I had a laptop, so besides really missing out on Instagram, it wasn’t too big of a deal. My parents reasoning was this: if there was ever an emergency and/or we needed to get a hold of them for some other reason, someone around us would have a phone we could borrow. It never once was a problem. I do have a smartphone now and love having Instagram, etc. But I don’t think I missed out on anything all that special in high school or before.

  6. Gabby, amazing post and great comments. The bottom line is none of us want screens to consume our lives and that of our kids. Do you think you would have already gotten oscar a phone if he was in more of a suburban school? We live in the suburbs… we waited til the end of seventh for my son but beginning of sixth for our daughter. Sadly they feel socially cut off without a phone.
    What rules do you have about screen time at your house? Do any of your kids need limits? Our son needs more limits than our daughter!

  7. I’m apologizing in advance because this is going to be a novel! I have six kids ages 11-21. The phone thing has been such an issue. These are our family rules:
    No phone until you’re 14. Yes, I know you’re the lamest and most ridiculous person at school because of that. Sorry. Blame it on your horrible, mean parents. (My daughter who is 12, though, is constantly texting her friends from my phone and I’m getting awfully tired of it.) With all their friends having phones there is always a way to get in touch with them or have them call me if they need something.

    No smartphones until at least age 16, possibly older (depending on the child). This is one I WILL NOT budge on. I have two middle-schoolers, two high schoolers and two-college aged kids so we know the struggle. We’ve had five suicides this year at our local high school and middle school and bullying has been at the root of each of these. In the days when we were growing up, if you were bullied at school you had to endure it and then make it home where, for the most part, the bullies would leave you alone. You’d have the next 12-15 hours to regroup before you went back to the bullies. But with all the social media and texting, kids can be bullied 24 hours a day (we all know how easy it is to be mean when you’re not looking a person in the face). Not only is it harmful to their self-esteems, they start to believe that this online world is real and important. I want my kids to understand that the real world is the one they see around them not the one on a tiny screen in their back pocket. It is essential that our teens regroup and have a place of happiness and safety when they’re not at school. Social media is not a place of happiness and safety for a teenager.

    And then there is the whole porn issue. My son, who just turned 18, was not allowed to have a smart phone until he was old enough to theoretically buy his own. I didn’t want to police him. Every boy out there (and some girls but it seems to be boys who have the real issues) is going to be looking at inappropriate things on their phones from time to time and if you don’t believe that, then you’re not paying attention. Ask your friends who have sons. You’ll hear some really scary stuff. Even now, with my son being 18 and having his own phone, he doesn’t have our home wifi password. He is on our cell plan so I restrict the amount of data he is allowed. I told him that if he wants to look at porn or whatever he’ll have to go to Starbuck or McDonalds, he’s not doing it at my house. He rolled his eyes but he gets it.

    The thing most parents don’t want to face is that there is so, so, so much horrible stuff online and that smartphones just invite it into the bedrooms and bathrooms of our homes. I’ve had children or children of close friends who have been soliciting prostitues on Craig’s list at age 15, watching hours of Japanese cartoon porn and looking up all the ways to build untraceable bombs. These are families who have two parents, with a stay-at-home mom who go to church every week (I only bring this up because lots of times parents point at other parents who have issues with kids and say, “well, of course that happens because their mom works too much and never supervises them.” Or whatever. It’s only natural to look for ways that other families might be at fault and why that would never happen to your family.) If you have a child, you have someone who is capable of making some very poor decisions. Quite often that has nothing to do with how much you love them and think you’re raising them properly. They all have to make their own choices and sometimes their choices are bad. Smartphones really up the ante of how bad those decisions might be.

    I think parents really need to take a step back and sincerely ask themselves why they want their child to have a smartphone. If the main reason is so that their child won’t feel like the only one who doesn’t have one, that’s pretty silly. What will be some of the positive things to happen from your child having a smartphone, as opposed to a family computer? What will some negative things be? If you honestly ask yourselves these questions–and involve your children too!–you might see that a smart phone isn’t the right choice.

    I finally had to tell my children that it would be easy to give them my old iPhones! It’s hard to NOT give kids what they want when you have the opportunity. But giving them what they want is not always the best choice in the long run.

    After we talked about it, even my 15-year-old daughter came to the conclusion that a smart phone isn’t the best idea for her right now. Maybe next year will be ok, we’ll re-evaluate then.

    We tell our kids all the time to stand up for what’s right even if it’s unpopular. That’s advice we should follow too.

    1. “Social media is not a place of happiness and safety for a teenager.” This went straight to my heart. It’s the truth, and I’ll remember this as my 11-year-old heads toward the teen years. Thank you.

  8. One reason I’m glad our school is no- to low-media. Our choices as parents are fully supported by our peers and teachers – no phones until at least 8th grade, or later. So we don’t even think about it much, and I don’t feel like my child is less safe without one. She’s in fifth grade, and has never asked, because there’s no peer expectation and little exposure. She knows how to use my phone to call family or play the one game I have loaded, and that’s enough. Or she’ll facetime with friends on occasion. She has a locked down email account that she can use to write to approved family and friends, but she’s not very interested in it. She’d rather call them and have a conversation. From my phone.

    She just took a claymation movie camp. The instructor pulled me aside afterward and said she was amazed at how engaged and focused my daughter was compared to the kids who had phones in their backpacks – she wanted to use lunch breaks to keep working and creating, using the provided movie software and computers. The other kids used every spare second to watch youtube clips and play games – and one of them watched horror films throughout the day. The reason I mention this isn’t to place a judgment on kids and parents who adopt phones early, but it’s an anecdotal story about how my low-tech kid (she does use an iPad mini for audiobooks and some creativity apps) isn’t any less tech savvy than the phone-equipped kids. Some parents worry that if they restrict their kids’ tech, they won’t be “up to date,” but it just isn’t true. Tech is designed to be intuitive – and it’s also changing so swiftly, what we learn today is unlikely to be relevant or essential five years from now. Being able to deeply engage, without distraction, is less and less common for all of us. Phone habits seem like one reason for this. I feel sad about that.

  9. We are definitely feeling our way through this thing as well. We are a blended family. My 15-year-old step-daughter has complete device freedom (and several devices of her own) at her mom’s house. We have taken a more restrained approach (which has made us quite unpopular, but that’s parenting, right?!). We did gift her a smart phone (not a super fancy one) when she turned 15 since she does take the city bus and we thought a device would be useful. That said, we were very clear that a smart phone is a PRIVILEGE, not something she’s entitled to and, when her grades started slipping in 9th grade, and we noticed she was up at all hours at her mom’s house on her devices, we downgraded her to a dumb phone – a REALLY dumb phone (we do feel like having some sort of communication device is a safety issue for her). She earned her smart phone back, but that’s her only device at our house. And, she turns it in at night time – no phone in her room at bed time. I know our rules bug her, but we’re making the choices we think are healthiest for her at this age. Totally agree that this is a big experiment. I also have a 2.5-year-old and am so interested to see what cell phone habits, usage, and research looks like by the time he’s a teen.

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  12. Our rules are: phones stay downstairs when kids go to bed, no phones at the table, we take away the phones when grades drop below threshold. My daughter earned a phone before her twin brother and when he finally got one I realized his social life improved. We only gave them phones when they used public transportation to get to school and to friends.

  13. My 9 year old has already started asking the cell phone question. Considering all the issues we have with monitoring computer use it is going to be a long time before he gets a phone. We have a set of really good walkie-talkies we use when he is out playing in the neighborhood or at nearby friend’s houses.

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