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What age should you give a kid their first phone?

Middle school is when more kids are getting devices like smart watches and phones

(Rose Wong for The Washington Post)

There is no one magical age when all tweens or teens are ready for a smartphone. Each child develops at a different pace and comes with their own personalities and struggles. Parents also have different ideas of what’s appropriate for their own families.

But experts share what to consider when it comes to when you should give a child their first phone.

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) could be a good start for considering a phone or a wearable.

There are valid reasons to go younger, like a child who commutes on their own or who splits time between homes. There are plenty of reasons to wait longer, ranging from not being ready developmentally to a phone exasperating existing issues.

You also don’t have to start with a full-fledged smartphone. A good smartwatch or feature phone can be a way to ease them into the responsibilities of having their own communication device.

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 licensed 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, 95 percent of teens between 13 and 17 already 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 exactly when it’s 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.”

Why might kids need phones?

You may have grown up dialing home on a corner pay phone on your way to the skate park, but these days kids stay in touch with smartwatches or phones. Are they doing things that might justify having a smartphone for communication?

For example, are they using public transportation, walking or biking long distances, doing jobs like babysitting or are they frequently home alone? Are they just starting to want 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 phone.

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 just group texts with friends. If a tween is growing independent and planning their own excursions and meetups with friends, a phone could be appropriate.

Growing up on screens: How a year lived online has changed our children

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 years old and up. 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 start using these apps and interacting with their friends.

“You want to give them a chance to practice this stuff before they’re in the big leagues,” Heitner says.

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 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?

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?

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, including the following:

  • 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.

To get started, visit our guide to giving a child their first smartphone.

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