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Home >Technology >Gadgets >Your child’s first smartphone: A guide to the proper age, phone type and parental controls

Many parents have been in close quarters with their kids for the past year and a half. And I mean Zoom-school-at-the-kitchen-table close. Now, as students across the country prepare to return to school full time in person, many parents of elementary- and middle-school students are wondering if they should send their kids off with a phone.

A handful of parenting questions are top of mind: What is the appropriate age for children to get a phone? Are we getting the phone for the kids—or because we feel a desire to always stay connected? How do we value their social pressures to own one? What kind of phone should we get them? And what parental controls are available to keep them safe?

Moms and dads, I’m going to break this down for you.

Determining the right age

“What we know is that there is not a magic age for when to get a child a smartphone, but by age 11, 53% of kids have their own smartphone," said Kelly Mendoza, a vice president at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group focused on responsible media use. (The figure comes from a 2019 survey the organization conducted of more than 1,600 people between the ages of 8 and 18 in the U.S.) “Sixth grade is a big transition for kids, when they start middle school and start to have more independence," she said.

Even though middle school is a turning point for many parents in making the leap, Ms. Mendoza said age isn’t as important as a child’s maturity. She said parents can assess their children’s phone readiness by asking themselves the following questions:

Do they show a sense of responsibility, such as getting their homework done on time?

Are they responsible for their things—do they tend to lose or damage personal items?

Do they already keep other devices, such as tablets, charged?

Would they be able to resist texting or scrolling in class?

It is also wise to assess whether there are legitimate needs for children to have a smartphone, such as being able to communicate while taking public transportation, or being reminded to take medication. If your children aren’t asking for phones—and the only reason you want to buy them one is so that you can stay in touch—it might be worth waiting until they are older, experts say.

Besides, this so-called digital tether can be a double-edged sword.

“Parents have gotten so used to knowing where their kids are 24/7. It is about weighing safety and independence," said Tracy Foster, executive director of Start, a digital-wellness nonprofit. “We can keep our kids safer because of tech, but I think a lot of times our kids don’t get the independence to develop the coping mechanisms they need to handle stress as adults."

Dealing with social pressure

Many kids start asking for a phone once their friends have one. The requests can start as early as elementary school, but the peer pressure heats up in middle school, according to digital-media experts and parents.

Understanding your children’s motivation can help you decide. Do they just want one because they want to fit in? Are they being excluded from social interactions, such as group texts? Sometimes the pressure can even come from school clubs and sports teams. A coach might require students to check a text chain or Facebook for scheduling updates.

Justin Ruben, co-founder of the nonprofit family advocacy group ParentsTogether, is grappling with whether to get his 12-year-old daughter a phone. “It’s not that she wants to be on TikTok, it’s that she feels she’s being cut out of the loop," he said. “Her friends have phones and are texting each other."

He and his partner are considering getting her a phone because she will be taking the New York City subway to school this fall. But Mr. Ruben worries about the downsides. “Phones can be helpful socially until they’re not," he said. “They can be a tool for social exclusion."

Parents of younger kids sometimes band with like-minded families to hold off as a group. An organization called Wait Until 8th lets families pledge together not to give kids smartphones until eighth grade. To ensure a lasting effect, the organization requires at least 10 families from a child’s grade and school to sign up. Parents can still sign the pledge if they give their kids a phone that can only text and call.

Picking the right smartphone

Once you’ve decided to give your child a phone, the next question is what type. Here on WSJ’s Personal Tech team, we generally recommend giving your kid a phone that runs on the same operating system as yours. When all family members are on the same ecosystem, be it iOS or Android, it is easy to message one another and to set up parental controls. Apple has Family Sharing and Screen Time controls for families with iPhones. The Google Family Link app works for those with Android phones (and Chromebooks). Google even has a Family Link iPhone app for parents to manage their kids’ Android phones.

Linking your kids’ phone account to yours allows you to set screen-time limits, choose which apps you want them to have, approve purchases from the App Store and the Google Play store and track their location—if you must. An added benefit: It can be an excuse to upgrade your phone and give them your old one.

If you do buy your child a new smartphone, you might want to consider a protection plan, or at least a rugged case.

Exploring an alternative

If younger children aren’t ready for a smartphone, there are other options aimed primarily at keeping kids tracked and within reach. Phones such as Gabb and Pinwheel give kids the ability to call and text but don’t include an internet browser.

There are also kids’ smartwatches that do the same thing, including Gabb’s version and the GizmoWatch 2 from Verizon.

You might want to invest in an Apple Watch, which can now be used by kids who don’t have an iPhone to pair it with. You set up the watch through your own iPhone, and can control when apps can be accessed on the watch and track its location. The catch is that the Apple Watch SE, the lowest-priced currently sold compatible model—which requires cellular connectivity—costs $329 new. (Alternatively, you could buy a refurbished Series 4 or 5 with cellular, but Series 3 isn’t compatible.)

Regardless of which device you choose, you’ll have to add it to your cellular plan, or pay separately for service.

Teaching responsible phone use

Deciding on the right phone for your children isn’t the final step. Before they power it up for the first time, experts say you should talk to them about your expectations for its use, and the consequences for losing or damaging the phone or for violating the rules.

Ground rules include when and where the phone should be used, where it should charge up at night (hint: probably not in their bedroom), how to treat others on social media and how to report cyberbullying.

Digital-safety experts suggest that families write up an agreement outlining the rules concerning phone use. Common Sense Media has a template parents can use.

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