Experts answer: “When do you think my child should get their own phone?”

16 Mar 2023 UK SIC

This is the second of a series of blogs written by the Education Team at Childnet, one of the partners of the UK Safer Internet Centre.

The Education Team deliver education and information sessions directly with children and young people aged 3-18 years old, as well as parents, carers, teachers and professionals.

We’re answering some of the most frequent questions asked by parents and carers about helping their children navigate the internet.

In this article, Childnet Education Officer Alison looks to offer advice regarding giving your child their first phone.

“When do you think my child should get a phone?”

There is no simple answer to this question, and there is no perfect age for a child to be given their first phone.

While this might not sound overly helpful, it does mean that there are a range of options, and you can take the time to decide what will work best for your family.

Times have changed a lot since we had our own first phones – I remember being given my first phone at the age of nine. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a small phone that could call, text and play ‘Snake’!

My phone was for one purpose only: texting my mum when I had finished at French club, so that she could walk over to collect me.

Moving on up to secondary school, I received my first smartphone. I used it for similar reasons as my old phones, but also got to text new friends, and finally take photos without carrying around my digital camera.

Ofcom’s 2022 research into technology use across the UK has shown that nearly all 13 – 15 year olds (98%) have their own phone. For most of these young people, they were given their phones around the start of secondary school, between the ages of 9 and 11 (91%).

Remember, as their parent or carer, you know your child best. Even if your child is pressuring you to give them a phone, it is completely up to you to decide when the time is right.

To help you with this important decision, we spoke to different parents and carers about their experiences of giving their child their first phone! You’ll can see that these experiences range, and there really is no right answer of when to give your child their own phone.

“I gave my child a phone for secondary school”

We waited until the summer before secondary school started. Our eldest is summer born and we were still making the short walk to drop him off and pick him up from his primary school so there was no need for him to have a phone at that point. He would be travelling by train to secondary school, so we used the summer to get him practising using his phone.

“We gave our child a phone in primary school and monitored them”

We decided that this was the right time for both of our children as we wanted to show them how to use their phones safely and responsibly before they headed to secondary school. They were allowed limited access to only use the Wi-Fi at home. That way, we could monitor what they were doing by supervising them when they were using their devices.

We found this early introduction worked well for them, especially for our younger child who has special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) as she needs more time to learn new skills. 

 “Our daughter had an old phone to play games from primary school”

Our daughter had expressed an interest in using a phone of her own to play games, and we had an older model iPhone that was spare. At first, she only used it whilst connected to the Wi-Fi, and playing games was all she was able to do.

We then decided to get her a Pay as You Go sim card with no credit on it. She was still only using it over Wi-Fi but was then able to practise messaging with family members, which you need a phone number for.

Since most of her friends did not have one, the novelty wore off very quickly. Even now, the phone remains switched off and unused most of the time!

 “My son received his first phone halfway through secondary school”

We were hesitant to give our son his first phone despite him asking for one from us from a much earlier age. We wanted him to focus and develop his interest in hobbies and afterschool clubs, and eventually used the phone as an incentive for him completing his saxophone exam. We do not regret not giving him the phone earlier as now he has a fantastic balance between screen time and offline interests.

“My daughter wasn’t interested, so even as a 17 year old she doesn’t have a smartphone”

My daughter has never been too fussed about technology and even when all her friends were getting phones, it wasn’t high on her list of priorities. Eventually I persuaded her that just a basic phone, so that she could stay in touch when she’s out and about, would be helpful.

She’s still not got a smartphone though and may never make that choice. I was a bit worried she’d feel left out but she’s always been happy to do her own thing so who am I to argue!

Setting expectations about phone use

As a parent or carer, it is up to you to set expectations about how and when your child’s device can be used.

I remember when I got my own phone and there were rules in my house about using the phone: it had to be turned off once I got to school, and only turned on once I left. I was not allowed to use the phone past 8PM, and it had to be charged in the living room overnight.

My mum was very clear about why I had these restrictions in place when I was a child, and even though I sometimes found them frustrating (especially when I wanted to keep messaging my friends), they were an important way that I learned to balance my time online and offline.

I still try to avoid going on my phone before I go to bed, because having those expectations early on taught me about digital wellbeing and introduced me to the importance of healthy balance.

A great way to set these expectations is by creating a Family Agreement with your child, by discussing and negotiating when and where devices can be used, and what they are used for by all members of your family. You can also regularly review your family agreement, for example when a new device is received, or if the way they use devices changes.

Next steps…

There are resources and much more information available to you if you’d like some further support regarding your child receiving their first phone.

First phone checklist

If you are considering getting your child their first phone, there are lots of factors to consider. Childnet’s ‘First Phone Checklist’ is a great, easy to understand resource that takes you through the process of choosing the right time, setting it up and supporting your child.

Have a conversation

It is so rewarding to have regular conversations about your child’s life online. This will show that you are interested and engaged in their hobbies and activities and can provide you with useful information about what they might be doing whilst online.

Moving on up!

As your child makes the transition into secondary school, Childnet’s ‘Moving on Up!’ videos are a great place to start conversations around new devices, digital wellbeing and online bullying.

UK Safer Internet Centre resources

You don’t need to be an expert on the internet to help keep your child stay safe online. Our advice and resources are here to support you as you support your child to use the internet safely, responsibility and positively. Also, our social media guides will help you to set up privacy and security settings if you ever feel the time is right.

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