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There is no magical age when tweens or teens are ready for a smartphone. Each child develops at a different pace and comes with their own personalities and struggles.
Parents and caregivers also have different ideas of what’s appropriate for their families.
However, there are general trends and guidance everyone can take into consideration when approaching this milestone.
To get you started, we asked experts what to keep in mind when it comes to giving a child their first phone.
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What is the ideal age for a first phone?
Your children could be ready for a smartphone or similar device anywhere from 10 to 14, or during middle school. A sixth-grader (typically 10 to 11 years old) is a good age to start discussing a phone or a smartwatch.
There are valid reasons to go younger, such as a child who commutes to school on their own or who splits time between homes. There are also plenty of reasons to wait longer, ranging from not being ready developmentally to a phone exacerbating existing issues.
You don’t have to start with a full-fledged smartphone. A good smartwatch or feature phone can ease a child into the responsibilities of having their own communication device. If location tracking is all you need, you can consider a lower-cost option like an AirTag.
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Why give kids phones so young?
“Ten to 12 is a great range because kids are still very connected to their parents and into their parents being in their phone and in their business,” says Catherine Pearlman, a clinical social worker and author of “First Phone,” a guide for kids.
A tween may be more likely to listen to what their parents have to say and absorb key lessons about etiquette and safety without rolling their eyes.
Even if they’re not getting their own smartphone at this age, it’s the right time to start talking to them about the technology and the internet. They’re going to be exposed to phones and the internet somewhere at this age. According to Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teens between 13 and 17 report having access to a smartphone.
In the past, some experts suggested waiting until eighth grade. Pearlman says that makes less sense given the pandemic and the acceleration of technology in schools, at home and in friend groups. “I think it’s naive at this point to say wait until eighth.”
When it comes to deciding the right time for a specific kid, there are multiple factors to consider. “It’s really about what they’re ready for, what the commuting needs are, and observed signs of independence and maturity,” said Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.”
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Why might kids need phones?
You may have grown up dialing home using a corner pay phone on your way to the skate park, but these days pay phones are scarce and kids stay in touch with smartwatches or phones. Ask yourself if they are doing things that might justify having a smartphone for communication.
For example, are they using public transportation, walking or biking long distances, doing jobs such as babysitting, or are they frequently home alone? Are they just starting to make independent plans with their friends? Do you want to be in touch to coordinate pickups or just for your own piece of mind? If these situations apply to your children, this could be a good reason to give them a device.
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Do they want it for social reasons?
Don’t dismiss concerns kids have about being left out of social circles without certain technology. Socialization increasingly happens online, whether it’s a Discord chat while playing video games or group texts with friends. It can help in-person socialization as well. If a tween is growing independent and planning their own excursions and meetups with friends, a phone could be appropriate.
Getting a phone doesn’t mean they get access to all the same apps their friends are on, especially social media. Most popular apps are built for people 13 and older. It’s fine to set limits and boundaries on how they communicate to start. Starting small also means you can give them guidance on how to use apps and interact with their friends as they go.
“You want to give them a chance to practice this stuff before they’re in the big leagues,” Heitner says.
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When is a child ready for a phone?
Look for independent milestones, the things in their life they’ve taken on that show they’re starting to be more responsible for themselves. Here are some questions you can also ask yourself to assess their readiness:
-How do they handle their current technology, like obeying screen-time limits for video games or tablets?
-Are they showing good judgment in other parts of their life?
-Are they taking on more grown-up responsibilities like part-time work or extra chores?
-Do you trust them to come to you with their problems and mistakes?
-Will they agree to rules about how and when they can use the device?
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When is a child not ready for a phone?
Not every kid is ready for a phone. Make sure they’re handling existing rules and responsibilities before throwing on something new. Also take into account how emotionally stable they are, says Heitner. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
-Are they able to handle minor conflicts?
-Can they navigate being accountable for their actions?
-Are they able to handle things without any impulsivity?
-Have they struggled with issues you worry could be exacerbated with a smartphone?
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What should you do before buying a phone?
Deciding a child is ready for a phone is just the first step. Before you buy them a device, make sure you are both prepared for what comes next. That includes a lot of prep work and ongoing education, such as:
-Agreeing on ground rules like screen-free times.
-Setting up parental controls and picking apps.
-Talking about what they might see online.
-Brushing up on etiquette and safety.
-Creating a written agreement.