Knowing when to give your child a smartphone, or any type of mobile phone, can be tricky. Should a 10-year-old child have a smartphone, for example? Or should you wait until a later age before introducing that luxury and responsibility? You’ll need to wade through a number of considerations before deciding what’s best for your child and family. Sometime during middle school years (typically ranging from ages 10-13) seems to be the right time for many families to offer their child a smartphone, and that way they have time to get used to using its features comfortably before entering high school.

Should you give a smartphone to a 10-year-old? Nearly half of all 10-12 year olds have a smartphone. The best determination for when to give your child a smartphone is really less dependent on their age and more about the child’s level of maturity and competency. Helpful considerations include: weighing the pros and cons of having a smartphone; your child’s level of overall maturity and how s/he handles responsibility; does your child often lose or damage things easily?; whether or not s/he has a grasp of digital safety; and more. There’s a lot to consider and no right or wrong answer. Additional considerations are listed below to help gain a better understanding.

I’ve worked in child development environments both before smartphones were the norm and after they became common products for kids. It’s been a long learning curve to know what you need to learn as a parent in order to best guide your child with his or her own smartphone – to keep your child safe, responsible, and well-balanced. And it all starts with when to introduce a smartphone in the first place. Keep reading below for helpful guidance for parents and guardians regarding smartphones for kids.

Considerations Regarding Smartphones for Kids Ages 10-12

There are numerous pros and cons when considering smartphones for kids ages 10-12.  Here’s a list of some of the most common that can help steer you in the right direction.

  • Does your child already know about digital safety? (If not, this is something you may want to work on with your child beforehand.)
  • Is s/he somewhat balanced with other types of media (TV, laptops, video games, etc.)? Or do you find yourself needing to tear your child away from media to concentrate on other things. (If they are already too focused and dependent on media sources for entertainment, a smartphone will most likely exacerbate the issue.)
  • Does s/he show a sense of responsibility about other areas of life, such as keeping up with homework and letting you know when they need help? (If so, s/he is more likely to use a smartphone responsibly.)
  • Does your child tend to take care of and keep track of their belongings? (If not, a smartphone is an expensive item to replace or get repaired. Be sure to take your child’s overall habits related to other belongings into consideration when deciding it’s the right time to introduce a smartphone.)

Additional concerns to be considered and discussed with your child:

  • Cyberbullying (Discuss what cyberbullying is so that s/he doesn’t engage in bullying anyone, and knows what to do if s/he is bullied through social media sites, with texts, etc.)
  • Sexting (Discuss what “sexting” is and how to respond if s/he receives text messages that would be considered “sexting.”)
  • Sending/receiving inappropriate photos (Ensure your child knows that any photos s/he sends should be appropriate and could end up anywhere and in anyone’s hands. Discuss reputation, what it means, how important it is, and offer examples of things that could go wrong, including the consequences.)
  • Privacy (Ensure that your child knows what information is safe to give out and what’s not. For example, s/he may share their first name, but not their last name, what school they go to, their street address, etc. without asking a parent if it’s okay.)
  • Access to online content that is not age appropriate (Consider installing an app that restricts usage and internet sites, such as NetNanny, Norton, or other applications offering parental controls.)
  • Times when it’s appropriate to be texting/sending messages/on the phone (Set AM and PM guidelines, as well as other times, such as during meals, in class, etc., as well as rules for when it’s okay to be on the phone, such as after homework and chores are complete.)
  • Ensuring you have access to your child’s phone, including apps (Passcodes, usernames, passwords, etc. – essentially, as long as you are paying for the phone, you should have full access. Though, once your child is nearing teenage years, it’s helpful to balance this with also respecting his/her privacy. Helpful advice is to let your child know that you will occasionally check their phone – especially if they are showing any suspicious behavior – but not to make it a regular occurrence. That’s usually enough to deter your child from engaging in inappropriate behavior online since they know you might be checking in at any point.)

What Is the Best Age to Give a Child a Smartphone?

Age really isn’t the best way to decide the best time to give your child a smartphone. Consider all of the bullet points above, and then weigh those considerations with how well you think your child can manage each point of consideration. It’s really a judgement call.

While many kids do start to use smartphone in middle school (roughly half of kids between the age of 10-12), a large group of parents choose to wait until later. Many parents actually prefer to wait until their child is a teenager to give their first smartphone. In fact, Bill Gates and James Steyer (CEO of Common Sense Media) are proponents of waiting until a child is around 14 years old (after they have learned the value of face-to-face communication).  While it may be tough for parents to hold out this long, it’s a tough love kind of thing. The longer parents wait before introducing a smartphone into their child’s world, the more engaged your child will be in their world (outside of digital access).

Balancing Screen Time with Other Activities

When my daughter was younger (prior to middle school), I encouraged very limited screen time (regarding TV, computers, etc.). So in these years before she had a smartphone, she had already learned to enjoy spending her time reading, being creative artistically, playing piano, and other hands-on types of activities.

Now that she has a smartphone, while admittedly she does spend a fair amount of time on her phone, she is also used to balancing her “media time” with these other pursuits. Her friends can’t understand why she isn’t “glued to her phone” 24/7, but it’s simply because she has other things on her mind (thankfully!)

So helping your child to find that balance of screen-time versus hands-on activities early on is truly helpful.

Want Versus Need

What can also sometimes be tough for parents is understanding the difference between wanting a phone and needing one. If your child says s/he needs a phone because all their peers have one, that’s not truly a need – it’s a “want.” Yet, the sense of not feeling ostracized by peers is also of importance and is a fair consideration, whether in middle school or high school.

At any appropriate age, phones can be most helpful in emergencies and just for staying in touch when your child is away from home. But the social aspects are important, as well – both in positive and negative ways. Your child will have easier access to networking socially with the use of a smartphone, and especially if your child is more on the introverted side, connecting by text or instant messenger can be more comfortable ways to engage with peers.

But with that easier digital access comes the possibilities of emotional distress when schoolmates or peers are acting out through social media apps or group texts. It can be more detrimental than acting out in person since group messages and social media outlets can reach larger groups of people than in-person groups typically do.

Potential Emotional Overload

Another consideration is that your child’s network of peers will have near 24/7 access, and is your child ready to be so suddenly “on call”?  It can be quite stressful and takes time and maturity to learn how to manage the difference between being digitally “connected” or “disconnected.”

S/he will need to learn how to balance being available some times versus taking time off from phone access other times, even when friends or peers have expectations that aren’t being met in terms of how often your child is available for conversations via various apps.

Should Kids Under the Age of 10 Have a Smartphone?

Generally speaking, it depends on the maturity level of the child. If your child is responsible and mature enough to handle having a phone, then whether s/he is 9 or 12 or 14 doesn’t much matter.

The best advice? Consider the pros and cons of your child having a phone and then use your best judgement, while keeping your particular child’s habits and behavior in mind.

Speaking for the average child under the age of 10, the issues of most concern would be:

  • May be more likely to lose or damage a smartphone
  • Is more likely to be exposed to inappropriate content
  • May be less likely to manage phone time responsibly without extra guidance and enforcing appropriate “allowable phone times”
  • May be less likely to have the emotional maturity to know how to deal with cyberbullying or people asking for private information that should not be shared

One tactic is to start a younger child with a basic flip phone. Offer that style phone for a while to see how it goes, and then “graduate” to a smartphone. That way, your child can get used to the idea of caring for a phone, when to use it, when not to use it, etc.

And, you have the extra comfort of knowing you can keep in touch when s/he is away from home, with a level of comfort that your child – at this point –has access to only phone and text features.

Helping Kids to Stay Safe with their Smartphone Usage

There are a number of websites that can offer information to help keep your child safe with his/her smartphone. For example, Connect Safely has created a Family Contract for Smartphone Use, which focuses mainly on safety. Common Sense Media has a Family Media Agreement that both the child and parent read and sign, which covers everything from appropriate usage to safety concerns.

A number of applications are on the market to help monitor your child’s safety with parental controls. I found those to be most helpful when my child was on the younger spectrum, but seemed to be too limiting (and honestly a little cumbersome) as by daughter became older.

In addition to safety apps/parental controls, discussions with your child are potentially far more helpful in understanding your child’s behavior and things s/he’s exposed to when using their smartphone. Discussing smartphone usage should be an ongoing topic of conversation on a regular basis.

As your child grows, interests change, popular apps change, and situations your child is exposed to changes. So the best way to keep up with these changes is an open and honest line of communication with your child.

The best advice is to ask your child questions about his or her phone usage and experiences (What apps do they use? Which are favorites and why? Who do they connect with? What are favorite topics of conversations? Do they receive any weird or uncomfortable messages? Do they know what cyber bullying is? Do they know of any kids who are mean to others online? If so, what do they do? What do they think they should do?). And install apps that track browser history so that you can check it every so often.

Cell Phone Radiation Effects and Are They Safe for Kids?

Scientists disagree about this topic. It’s difficult to study because effects of radiation can take decades to unfold and see clear results. Since the higher prevalence of kids using cell phones is relatively new, research is lacking to offer definitive answers. It’s also difficult to study effects of cell phone usage because its usage is so widespread, so comparing low-usage effects versus higher-usage effects is challenging.

Meanwhile, here’s what we do know. Cell phones emit microwave radiation. And microwave radiation may promote cancer, so it’s concerning, but not yet definitive. We also know that children’s brains receive a higher amount of radiation from cell phones than adults. This is because while the amount of radiation emitted from phones is the same for adults and children, children’s heads and brains are smaller, and therefore the same amount of radiation has a greater impact.

Here are some recommendations to keep your kids safe when using cell phones:

  • Use the speakerphone feature or an earpiece rather than using the phone directly placed to the ear.
  • Do not allow kids to keep their phones right up against their body while sleeping, or even under their pillow.
  • When the phone is “ON,” store it as far away from the body as possible (in a purse, backpack, on a piece of furniture, etc.) to reduce radiation emission.
  • If it’s necessary to be stored in a pocket, use the back pocket rather than front (to avoid the possibility of radiation reaching reproductive organs) – and do not store phones in bras, socks, or other “against the skin” places.