Giving your child a phone for the first time is a decision not to be rushed. Timing matters, and so does the type of device. Are you dusting off your old iPhone or Samsung,
or buy one of the new kid-centric phones with built-in monitoring?
I’ll go over everything you need to consider, as well as the features of the different options.
Determine your child’s readiness. There is no magic age when a child is ready for a phone. Often the decision is a practical one: When children enter middle school, for example, they are not necessarily monitored as closely as they were in elementary school. You might want to keep track of them – and give them an easy way to reach you. By age 11, 53% of children have their own smartphone, according to the non-profit organization Common Sense Media.
Parents considering this modern rite of passage must balance a range of factors, from their child’s maturity level and desire for independence to fears of cyberbullying and too much screen time.
There are signs that children may be ready. If they show responsibility by doing their homework, keeping track of belongings, and taking care of their other electronics, they might be able to handle a phone.
Define the purpose. Before deciding which type of phone to get, discuss with your child the reasons for having one. “What do you need and want your child to be able to do with a phone?” says Jacqueline Nesi, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University who studies children’s technology use. “What does your child need and want to do with a phone?”
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If the primary purpose is to let your child know you’ll be late for school pick-up, your child may not need the functionality of a smartphone. A more limited kids phone (or even a smartwatch) would do. But if your child needs a phone to submit school assignments or to communicate with school groups and sports teams via apps, the smartphone is the best option.
Decide on parental controls. The level of restrictions you want to place on your child’s access to the internet, social media and contacts may dictate your choice. iPhones and Android devices have parental controls built into the settings. Parents who use Apple Family Sharing or Google Family Link can also limit screen time and set limits on app usage from their own phones, though the tools require some initial setup.
Phones designed for children come with deeper controls and more monitoring, such as the ability to read their texts. Developers of these phones say that children cannot bypass the restrictions.
The biggest reasons to hand over a phone are that you’re already familiar with it and your family members likely have similar devices, so you can share apps and content.
The downside is that these are usually full-fledged devices, so you have to set limits. (If you’re not careful, your kids can take advantage of your mistakes to get around parental controls.) Also, really old phones aren’t safe: It’s important to make sure any phone you give your child is running the latest operating system.
iPhone: With the iOS 16 update, Apple Family Sharing now includes suggestions for age-appropriate content restrictions, as well as a family checklist with tips on how to update settings as kids get older. Quick Start lets you set up a new iPhone with parental controls in place. Models dating back to iPhone 8 can run iOS 16. When giving an old iPhone to your child, delete your personal information first.
Android: This month, Google updated Family Link to make it easier to manage devices like Samsung Galaxy phones and its own Pixel phones. A new location tab shows all your kids on a map, and if a phone goes missing, you can activate its ringtone. Parents can turn on notifications to be alerted when their child enters or leaves a location. Parents can also set “today only” screen time limits when their child needs an exception. Follow these steps before giving your old Android device to your child.
These don’t scream baby phones. They look like any other stylish Android smartphone. They’re less embarrassing than, say, a flip phone. Remember that the phones have training wheels. As the children get older, you can lift some restrictions and in some cases upgrade to a more full-featured version.
The biggest downside in an Apple-heavy social scene is that these phones display the “green bubble” texts that teenagers dread. Also, if your child is already using an iPad, switching can be annoying.
Bark Phone (service and hardware lease from $49 per month): The developer of a popular baby monitoring app has integrated the app’s features into a new phone to be released in mid-November.
In addition to having Bark’s content analysis and parental controls pre-installed – and not removable – this Samsung A13 phone is further customized with additional features, such as location tracking, call blocking and the ability to manage contacts. Parents who rent a Bark phone can install the Bark Premium app on any of their children’s other devices at no additional cost.
Gabb Wireless (phones from $150; plans from $18 per month): This four-year-old company developed smartwatches for young children, plus two smartphones: The original Gabb Phone is for kids 9 and up, while an advanced Gabb Phone Plus is for kids 13 and up.
Gabb phones have no app store or web browser. If the language of text messages between unknown contacts contains inappropriate content, they will not be delivered and photos from unknown contacts will be blocked. Texts cannot be deleted. Parents can track their children’s location and create “safe zones” such as school grounds or friends’ houses; they will receive notifications if their children’s phones leave these areas. Gabb also has a music service with top hits without explicit lyrics. Gabb Phone Plus will soon offer recommended third-party apps.
Troomi Wireless (phone from $180; plans from $20 per month): The company, launched last year by one of Gabb’s founders, sells Samsung phones running a custom operating system. Parents can add features as their children get older.
Parents can view their children’s texts remotely and monitor the phone’s location through a web portal. Parents can choose to allow their children to send and receive photos in the messaging app. The phone includes a content-filtering browser and allows parents to add childproof apps.
Pinwheel (phone starting at $200; $15 monthly service fee beyond wireless plan): This kids phone option is aimed at middle schoolers but is designed to grow with the child, possibly through high school.
Parents can monitor their children’s phone activity – even deleted texts – through a web-based portal. Parents can create daily routines for their children to follow and allow certain apps or contacts during specific times. The phones can include financial apps and curated educational and music apps. There is no web browser and the phone is compatible with Bark’s monitoring software.
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Write to Julie Jargon at [email protected]
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