When Should You Give Your Kid a Cellphone?

A cell phone with a call from mom coming through, with a school bus in the background

Verywell / Julie Bang

When your 12-year-old finally walks in the front door, you don't know whether to hug them or yell at them. You expected them home half an hour ago, and you were worried sick. "I told you we were working on that group project today!" they defend, as you launch into a lecture. "We had to finish it. It's due tomorrow!"

Your kid has a point, but you are still upset about having to worry. After you take a deep breath, you calmly let them know that you are glad to see them, but next time, they need to call if they'll be home late. Looking at you strangely, your child responds, "With what phone?"

It turns out there was no landline where your child and their classmates were working. A similar issue came up a few weeks ago when their soccer practice location was moved and you didn't know where to pick them up. You begin to wonder if it's time to get your kid a phone, but you don't want them to become addicted to social media or have access to games whenever they want. And you don't want them staying up late to text their friends.

Kids today may need cell phones earlier than parents think—but that doesn't mean they need the latest phone on the market. Let's break down how to know when your child needs a phone, what kind to get, and how to set boundaries around usage.

Why Do Kids Need Their Own Phones?

There are a few reasons why getting a phone for your child can make life easier for everyone—and also keep them safer. It can also teach your child responsibility as they learn to care for their phone, avoid losing it, and stay within their cell phone plan's voice, data, and texting minutes.

Basic Safety

It's important your kids can reach you easily and immediately in an emergency. This extra sense of security and safety is probably one of the main reasons parents even consider getting a younger child a cell phone. This is especially true once they get to the point of spending time with peers unsupervised. But you'd also want your child to be able to call you anytime something feels wrong, even if they're with another adult.

Additionally, if your child walks or takes the bus to school, you may have peace of mind if they can shoot you a quick text to let you know they've safely reached their destination.

Teens who drive or who ride in their friends' cars may need to use a phone to call their parents or an emergency number. "If they get stuck on the side of the road or become lost, they need to be able to pull up directions or call for help," notes Katie Weidenkeller, a Colorado-based licensed professional counselor who works with children and teens. Some phones have built-in GPS tracking, like Apple's "Find My" app that allows you to track your child if you add them. There are other apps you can buy. For example, Life 360 includes many tracking, location, and safety features.

Communicating With Peers

Cell phones are a primary way to connect with others these days. Having a phone of their own may help kids socialize and build friendships. Older kids and teens may also use their phones to plan group schoolwork and social gatherings, or even play games together.

"Phones can be a tool to promote social skills, such as using them to FaceTime with friends and family," says Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA, a positive parenting psychologist and licensed educational board certified behavior analyst.

Phones can be a tool to promote social skills, such as using them to FaceTime with friends and family.

REENA B. PATEL, LEP, BCBA

Extracurricular Activities

If your children participate in extracurricular activities, having a phone allows them to reach out to you if needed. For example, they may need to let you know about changes in schedules or locations. This may be especially true toward the end of the sports season or school year when practices and studying are ramped up.

The Downsides of Phones for Kids

While there are benefits surrounding both convenience and safety, getting a phone for your child might also present some downsides that are important to consider.

Negative Effects of Social Media

Kids with phones might end up spending more time on social media. Excessive social media use in teens has been linked to mental health issues, such as negative self-image and an increase in self-harm.

Negative Effects on Sleep

Using screens before bedtime has been confirmed to negatively impact sleep. Sleep deprivation in children can be associated with lower processing speed and working memory. That means learning becomes more difficult for kids who do not get enough sleep.

Unlimited Access to Information

It seems like everything is on the internet. You may worry about your child stumbling across inappropriate content, or reading about things on their own that you'd rather they learn with your guidance. Of course, phones aren't the only way for kids to find things that they shouldn't, but access to this technology certainly makes it easier for that to happen.

Distraction

We all know cell phones are a distraction for drivers, but cell phones can also be a big distraction for people crossing the street on foot, leading to more accidents and injuries. They can also be a distraction at school. While some schools allow cell phones for use at lunch and in between classes, others ban them. Your child may not be able to have or use the phone during the time when they are most likely to be away from home.

Behavior Problems

Cell phones also put your child at risk of getting in trouble for sending, posting, or receiving inappropriate photos. Or a child might make prank calls, or be blamed for them if a classmate takes their phone and uses it to make those inappropriate calls.

What Age Does My Child Need a Phone?

There is no magical age where kids are suddenly ready to get a phone. Parents need to decide when the time is right based on a few factors.

Practicality

If having a phone would simplify your child's daily routine, then it may make sense to get one. If you always have to reach out to their coach to see what time you need to pick them up, or your child is always borrowing someone's phone to get in touch with you, maybe it's time for them to have a phone of their own.

Responsibility

In order to be trusted with a cellphone, a child should already reliably keep track of their belongings—and take good care of them. "If your child loses things easily, it might not be time for a phone of their own," notes Weidenkeller.

Being responsible enough to have a phone also means that your kid will use it wisely. If they can follow rules and respect boundaries and limits, they may be ready for a phone.

Supervision

Generally, a kid who always has adult supervision does not necessarily need a phone. The adults, such as you and an after-school care provider, might already be communicating with each other as needed. Once your child is spending unsupervised time with peers, getting a phone may become more necessary.

The exact age that you can leave your child unsupervised varies by state, but you should also consider your individual child before allowing them to spend time with no adults present. If you are unsure about leaving your child without adult supervision, you could always have a conversation with your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider.

Should You Get a Smartphone or a Starter Phone?

Smartphones are so much more than just a phone, and that's part of why it's easy to overuse them. If you do think your child would benefit from a phone, but you're concerned about them accessing too much social media and not getting enough sleep, you can always get them a phone that only calls and texts.

"Around age 14, children's frontal lobes are developing, which affects impulse control," notes Patel. "To handle a smartphone, kids need to be socially mature and be able to stop and reflect upon their actions. Before they reach this point, I recommend a flip phone or a starter phone instead of a smartphone."

Setting Boundaries Around Phone Usage

Children and adults alike can benefit from boundaries on their screen time use. But kids may need some extra help to set these boundaries—and ensure that they adhere to them.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends coming up with a family media use plan that includes media-free times, such as dinner or other meals, and media-free zones, such as bedrooms. The AAP also advises parents to ensure that screen use does not take away from a full night's sleep and at least an hour of physical activity each day.

Some kids might be tempted to reach for their phones at all hours, so it may be wise for parents to hold the phones overnight, or until homework and chores are done. Some parents opt to unplug the wifi after bedtime or even change the password.

Some other ground rules you may consider: 

  • Purchase a pre-paid plan with a limited number of minutes so that you won't be faced with a lot of extra charges.
  • Look for a phone that allows strict limits, including being able to turn off web access and text messaging. Some phones also allow you to restrict both incoming and outgoing calls to certain numbers.
  • Give the phone to your child only on certain occasions, such as when they might not be near another phone
  • Download a GPS tracker app onto the phone, or require your child to share their location, so that you can easily find them when you need to.
  • Discuss serious cell phone issues, such as cyberbullying, the dangers of distracted driving, cell phone etiquette, and school rules for cell phone use.

A Word From Verywell

Getting a cell phone for the first time is now a milestone for kids. If your child needs to get in contact with you during the day, getting them a phone may be a good choice. Consider getting a starter phone instead of a smartphone, as they have limited features and may protect kids from getting hooked on playing games or spending too much time on social media.

You may also want to consider having a family meeting to allow space for everyone in the family to share excitement and concerns over having a phone. Work on troubleshooting those concerns and collaborating on joint solutions. Get on the same page by signing a contract. That way, everyone can remain accountable to everyone. When circumstances change, these contracts can always be revisited.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Where We Stand: Screen Time

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.

Originally written by
Vincent Iannelli, MD

Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.

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