Your child’s first phone: how old should they be?

Lynn JataniaI remember when the iPad was first released back in 2010. Shortly after it came out, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were spotted at a restaurant letting their daughter Suri, who was four years old at the time, play on their iPad while they waited for their food. Naturally the world was horrified – partly because a child was using a screen at the table, and partly because it must be nice to have so much money to throw around that you’d give such an expensive item to a preschooler.

But of course, we all got used to the idea, and now even toddlers are sometimes using apps on tablets and phones. Maybe it helps keep them occupied while you’re putting a younger sibling down for a nap; maybe it helps them wait for a delayed flight at the airport. Or maybe an educational and fun app is just a nice treat to share with your kids once a day.

As parents, we struggle with both the “how much” question when it comes to screens, but also the “when.” And it’s not just “when” they should be allowed to use a device, but also, when should they be given one of their own.

I think there’s no hard and fast rules here. We’re all feeling this stuff out together as we raise the first generation that can carry around a world of knowledge and a powerful computer in their pocket. When to give your child their own device depends on whether or not they can be trusted to take care of it, whether or not they will use it properly, and whether you have rules and structure in place to make sure they know what is expected of them.

Our first kids’ only device was my son’s iPod. He bought it with birthday money when he turned 11. It was a great first device, in that it allowed him to play lots of fun little games and play music – his primary wants – and was small enough to fit in his hand. At the time, it was an “at-home” only device, as it required wifi to work, and even more restrictive than that, we had a “no devices in your bedroom” rule from day one. We were able to keep a general eye on what he was playing and where on the web he was going, while at the same time giving him a little bit of independence. As our daughters grew older, we followed a similar pattern, only they both opted for a larger tablet when they turned 11 – since they had to keep them at home and in the public spaces, portability was not an issue.

You can still buy an iPod (in fact, Apple just released a newly upgraded one for 2019!) which is a nice choice if you’d like your youngster to have their own device, especially now that wifi is available at work and home and the mall and fast food places and just about everywhere else, so it can be portable if you want it to be. But these days I mostly see kids going straight from a shared family device to their first phone.

For us, we decided to buy our kids their first phone when they each turned 14 and were entering high school (our youngest is still waiting!). It seemed like the right balance between “everyone else has one!” and actually being responsible enough to maintain it and use it properly. Thanks to the iPod and tablets, we had a “no phones in your bedroom” rule from day one, and we made it clear that school rules were to be obeyed at all times. We already had screen limits in place, too, so we already had clear expectations by the time they had their own phones.

It turned out to be pretty much the perfect age for our kids, and worked out really well. We had a few broken-phone incidents but in general they took phone ownership very seriously and took great care of their devices. They knew the rules at home and at school and knew to obey them or else lose privileges.

And they also by then had a small income from a little part-time work which allowed them to pay for their own data plans. We bought the phones for their birthdays, and we continue to pay for an unlimited texting plan so we can contact them at any time. But data was on them, and for that reason they are also quite respectful of phone use outside of the house. (They are also WIZARDS at finding and linking to wifi wherever we go!)

Age 14 also turned out to be a great age, for our kids at least, to have some open conversations about social media and the internet. They were still young enough to want to talk to us and value our advice, but old enough to be left to make their own decisions, once given enough information. In the end, that’s probably the answer to the original question: kids are ready for a smartphone when you’re confident that they understand the rules and values you want them to live by, and will follow them even when you’re not around. Although our kids still swear they were the last ones in their grades to get their own phone, we’re happy with the age we chose for both their first iPod/tablets and their first phones.

How old were your kids when they got their first device? Was it a phone or a starter tablet? Would you do the same today?

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