Kids & Screens: What is the Right Age for a Smartphone?
I recently wrote a post about giving a feature phone to my youngest, who needed to be able contact me after school. I suggested that carrying a feature phone could be a lesson in responsibility, but it is also a cheap way to postpone the conversation about smartphones a bit longer.
The question now becomes: 'What is right age to hand over a smartphone to a child, and under what conditions?'
The age of twelve feels about right to me, and only with certain strict agreements in place.1 Twelve is the age when most children leave elementary school and start middle school, a time when study and homework become a bit more serious. In most countries, legal adulthood is only 6 years away. This feels like a long enough period of time to learn how to manage responsible, independent smartphone use, with parental guidance.
When I asked my middle child to help me remember how our conversations about getting a smartphone went at the time, they reminded me the key reason for needing a smartphone was to join in on group chats, mainly on WhatsApp. This was partly for the social connections, but also for communications and updates with friends around school-related work.
I am a high school teacher and see the impact of smartphones on the lives children every day. Some children are deprived of sleep, because they are allowed to take their devices with them to their bedrooms, unsupervised. I know this because I discuss home screen management and rules in class. Allowing phones in bedrooms unsupervised strikes me as a very bad idea. Another smartphone-related problem is that some children are bullied relentlessly on social media. Having to face the same people the next day at school, with the entire class or even student body aware of last night's proceedings must be a harrowing experience. There is little schools can practically do to intervene, as most of the bullying happens after school hours and not on school platforms, but schools can ban smartphones during the school day. I think is a good idea.
I digress here, but perhaps my experiences as a teacher explain the somewhat strict rules about smartphone use in our home. They are:
- the smartphone will not have a SIM card, but only operate on Wi-Fi
- the smartphone generally stays at home
- no screens are allowed after dinner until the next day
- the smartphone will never be taken to the bedroom
- it will be charged in the same, visible location in the living room every night
- both the parents and the child have admin privileges to the phone
- it will be a refurbished Android phone, in order to keep the cost down
We remembered that one further rule, related to the second rule above, was decided by mutual agreement:
- the smartphone will not be taken to school; a dumbphone will be carried instead, in case of emergency; exceptions for school projects are allowed
We began with an old HTC Android phone I had kept in a drawer. This worked for a while, but eventually
we I bricked the phone by rooting2 the device in an attempt to delete unwanted factory built-in apps (like Facebook). This worked for a short while, but at one point I deleted something essential by accident, and the phone became a simple error message device, and eventually, a doorstop.
Next, I passed on my Motorola Moto G3, the first phone that learned to flash a custom ROM onto, namely a 'fork' of LineageOS called '/e/OS' (awful name, I know). This is the phone that is still in use today.
The school gave an assignment where students were asked to take photographs in town, and put these on their Instagram account for their project. I don't like when schools assume all kids have a smartphone and have accounts with all social media apps. We found a work-around by borrowing a friend's account.
Through reflecting on experiences with my oldest child, I have begun re-evaluate the effectiveness of parental control tools. They are too heavy-handed, encourage policing your child, and don't teach personal responsibility. A better alternative is being the administrator of your child's devices. However, while I do know the password to my child's phone, I have to admit I don't check it very often.
Smartphones are addictive, and we can regularly hear the Moto G3 buzzing away in the living room. Sometimes you have to be firm. In such cases, it helps to have a fixed charging station somewhere visible in the living room. This way, the parents can always see at a glance that the phone is where it should be, rather than continually having to ask, 'Where is your phone?'
I know some of you reading this may find my approach too strict. It is a fact our children are among the last ones in their class to get screens or social media permissions. But I feel parents are giving their children smartphones too early, and often hand over admin rights to their children with little thought as to what that means in practice.
Current use and looking ahead
For the moment, the smartphone continues to stay at home, and the Nokia 8110, truly robust and long-lasting, continues to be taken to school.
It was useful for my child to have a smartphone when the school began to use an online study platform for assignments and reports (though all of these things can be seen on desktop too).
Sharing the administrative password between parent in child works well as a general approach. It creates a sense of transparency and responsibility, rather than a policing or fault-finding relationship.
For Bill Gates, apparently, the minimum age for smartphones for his children was 14. Their household had similar rules about limiting screen time during and after dinner.
Published later in The Guardian: ‘It’s tough for parents’: should young children have their own phone?
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I won't list all the sources here, but a quick DuckDuckGo search shows that in, for example, the USA, the average age children receive their first smartphone today (end of 2022) is closer to 10.↩
To root a phone is to change the permissions, so that the user is able to add or delete anything on the device. This is not a straight-forward process and can result in 'bricking' the phone (as I discovered).↩