An Expert Weighs In—Everything You Should Know Before Your Kid Gets a Phone

Advice from the mom of a teen.

By Anne Campbell

It’s the question on all parents’ minds: when should kids get phones? When it comes to getting kids their first phone—or breaking your teen from their troubling addiction—tips, insights, and opinions run the gamut. And what works for some families won’t necessarily work for others. If, like me, you can remember the days when kids’ lives didn’t revolve around what happened in the digital sphere, I’m sure you can relate to my concept of “the phone.”

The first iteration of the phone was simply the thing that my entire family shared that occasionally rang when a family member called. It hung on the wall and we used it to order pizza, call the weather channel, or find out which movies were playing. (Insert deep voiceover: “welcome to movie phone!”)

Once high school hit, the magical device was the thing attached to the cord that you used to twist around and around while talking for hours on end to your crush. Remember this fun game: “No you hang up first! No, YOU hang up first!” Sigh. Swoon. The nostalgia is real, and it’s an arguably more innocent relationship to The Phone™ than my kids will ever be able to have in their tech-dominant world.

mother and daughter playing, when should kids get phones
Image by Belathée Photography

When Should Kids Get Phones? An Expert Weighs In

Nowadays, our phones are basically an extension of ourselves. Never out of sight, barely out of our hands. You can be reached anytime, anyplace, anywhere. It almost makes you miss the sound of the busy signal. 

With the subject of phones now being discussed with growing frequency in our home, I’m trying to navigate the best way to appropriately keep my kids connected when there isn’t a healthy landline’s distance to be found. 

There are a million questions running through my mind on this topic at any given moment. What’s the best tracking app for my teenager’s iPhone? When should my fifth grader get one herself and what rules should I enforce? And how can I get a jumpstart on restrictions now with my first grader that I can adhere to as the iPhone brigade parades into our home?

Because it’s far more than just a handy little object to connect with a friend. Our phones allow a whole new world of constant communication, contact, content, and access. Press 1 if you’re freaking out. 

With zero clue where to start, I connected with Brooke Shannon of Wait Until 8th, an online platform that encourages parents to delay (wait till 8th!) getting a smartphone for their kids. Brooke helped me understand the different stages of adolescence when it comes to tech. Bookmark this one, caretakers, teachers, parents, and grandparents—it’s an interview worth revisiting. 

Brooke Shannon

Brooke Shannon is the Executive Director and founder of Wait Until 8th. She lives in Austin with her husband Michael and three daughters. Brooke has a Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern University and B.A. in Political Science and Communications from the University of Miami.

mother and son embrace, when should kids get phones
Image by Teal Thomsen

Tips for Kids 

Treat smartphones like tools, not toys

When your kids are little, it is easy to give your little one your phone to watch YouTube or play a game to buy time while you wait at the restaurant or at the dentist. Resist this temptation. This teaches them the phone is fun and can eliminate boredom.

Always carry a book with you

With a book by your side, your default mode will be reading, not scrolling social media or cramming a few emails when you have a couple of minutes. Your kids will pick up on this habit modeled to them in the early years. Encourage your children to keep a book with them as well. Stash a few books in the car so your family always has a book to grab. My girls also love magazines. Check out the Week Junior for a kid friendly weekly news publication or Highlights for elementary kiddos. My middle schoolers also love cooking magazines and Real Simple. What a difference it will make to encourage your children to read instead of consuming mindless entertainment on a smartphone or tablet!

Make all meals device-free

Gathering around the family dinner table or at your crew’s favorite restaurant is an important time to reconnect and be together as a family. Devices distract from rich conversations. Research shows that the presence of a smartphone can lessen the quality of an in-person conversation. Protect all mealtimes from the intrusion of devices. Make it a family practice to unplug for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at home or dining out.

Choose shared screen time instead of individual screen time

With our homes overflowing with TVs, tablets, and phones, it’s tempting to let each kid choose their own entertainment. Yet, it is important for children to share experiences with their families. It’s good for them to compromise when picking out a movie, show, or video game. Designate a weekly family movie night for the family to enjoy screen time together. 

Delay! Delay! Delay!

Preschool kiddos and elementary school children do not need smartwatches or smartphones. This is a time for them to play outside, read, and spend quality time with family and friends. This also is an important time for children to learn interpersonal skills like listening, interpreting nonverbal communication, eye contact, and effective speaking. Smartphones are a huge distraction to the development of these skills.

This is a time for them to play outside, read, and spend quality time with family and friends.

Rally some other friends to join you in delaying the smartphone with the Wait Until 8th pledge. There is strength in numbers and your kid won’t be the “only one” if you encourage other families to delay, too.

woman using phone, when should kids get phones
Image by Michelle Nash

Tips for Tweens

If your tween wants to text, try a tablet first

Once you have a middle schooler, you quicky learn how much kids connect outside of school via texting. If you want a way for your child to connect with their peers during middle school, we prefer texting and FaceTime on a tablet that stays in your kitchen/family room only versus a smartphone. Please note we do not recommend starting this until middle school. Elementary kids need to learn key in-person communication first and need lots of time playing and exploring!

The benefit of the iPad over a phone is that it stays at the house under your supervision instead of constantly with your child like a phone is. The same instructions for stripping down a phone will apply to the iPad (remove access to the internet browser and App Store). Essentially, make this device a communication device for texting and FaceTiming. Teach your child how to text before you grant this privilege on the iPad or a basic phone. Monitor your child’s texts. They are not allowed privacy at this stage in the training game—they need coaching.

If you need to get in touch, consider a basic phone

We encourage parents to delay all phones through elementary school and most of middle school. They learn so much not tethered to a device. They learn how to interact with people face to face, how to be present, speak up, listen, problem-solve, and manage situations without a constant tether to mom, dad, and friends.

There are situations where it is convenient for our kids to have a phones to reach them. But for us, the conveniences are not worth it. For parents who want or need a communication device for their middle schooler, we encourage them to start with a basic phone like Gabb, Light phone, Wisephone, Bark, or Pinwheel instead of a smartphone. All of these phones are very basic and do not have access to the App Store, games, internet browser, and social media. A basic phone is a thousand times better than starting with a smartphone. We believe most middle schoolers thrive, grow, and learn better without a phone.

Make car time conversation time

We spend a good amount of time together as a family shuttling to and from school and activities. These short trips can be avenues for great conversations as a family or an opportunity for kids to catch up with friends on your carpool turn. Guard this conversation space fiercely by making your car a phone-free zone for all riders. Sometimes this entails gently reminding your kids and their friends that phones should be put away in your car. In our car, we have signs posted in the car that say “no phone zone.” Some kids laugh at them or do a slight eye roll, but for the most part they respect the family rule. Protect your family’s space from smartphone evasion!

If your tween is curious about a viral trend, look it up together

If every kid at school is talking about a funny dance on TikTok or a hilarious video on YouTube, take the time to check it out together. This gives your child the opportunity to be in the know of popular trends without having to have a social media account. Plus, by looking it up together you can talk about it as a family.

Say “not yet” to all social media in middle school

This is absolutely the WORST time for kids to be on a platform where they constantly are told they are not enough. I know your kids will beg and say, “every kid has BeReal or anyone who is anyone is on Instagram or kids ONLY communicate on Snapchat.” Parents, do not CAVE! Keep your middle schoolers off social media. They are not ready.

woman reading magazine, when should kids get phones
Image by Kristen Kilpatrick

Tips for Teens

Start slowly with the smartphone

Never hand over a fully-loaded smartphone as a first phone for a child. Remove the access to the App Store and to the internet browser through parental controls on the phone. Your child does not need unfettered access to the internet. If research is required for schoolwork, encourage the child to use a family computer, tablet, or school device. In most scenarios though, children are on the internet on a smartphone for entertainment purposes. Take this boredom eliminator away. Also, do not allow games or social media at first. Keep it simple! Texting, calling, photo taking, and listening to books and music.

Nix notifications on your teen’s phone

Phones call for our attention. Every day, we are bombarded by a constant stream of dings, flashes, and red badges screaming for our attention and pulling us away from our family and friends. Turn down the digital noise by going to Settings on your child’s phone. Then click “notifications” and turn off the badges, banners, and notifications for everything except for calls and texting.

When it comes to social media, proceed with caution

I suggest delaying social media until at least 16. At some point after that and before high school graduation, you may want to instruct them how to use social media moderately and safely. Try one platform first before allowing multiple social media accounts. Set time restrictions on the social media apps. Limit to 10-15 minutes a day. Be sure to follow their accounts and check in with what they are doing and what accounts they are following.

Keep phones out of the bedrooms at night

Period. No excuses here. Every expert from pediatricians to internet safety gurus to child psychologists agree that phones do not belong in the bedroom at night. Our devices should go to bed long before we do. Downtime before sleep time is huge! A few tips:

  • Create a curfew for the device to check in with you. Ideally, this will be at least one hour before the lights are out.
  • Establish a curfew on the device through parental controls.
  • Get an old-school alarm clock for each of your kids.
  • Talk to your kids about the importance of sleep and the crucial role it plays in physical and mental health. Sleep makes a big difference on the academic front, too.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind

Are you cringing every time you think about your kid on Snapchat, Instagram, or TikTok? Do you wish you could put the social media genie back in the bottle? We hear from so many moms and dads who regret saying yes to social media for their kids. They worry about how much time they are spending on it and losing sleep over what their children have been exposed to on social media. There are concerns about how the constant feed of perfection is making their kids feel inadequate. I am here to tell you that you can pause it all.

family social media break
Image by Michelle Nash

Take a Social Media Break as a Family

You can tell your kids you want your family to take a break from social media. Maybe the pause is a reset for a week, a month, six months, or longer. You are in charge, so don’t be afraid to change your mind. During the social media break, see what you observe in your kids. Do they seem calmer, happier, or less stressed?

A few more child phone tips to help your entire family develop a healthier relationship with their technology:

  • Consider watching The Social Dilemma together during this reset.
  • Read articles about how addictive social media can be.
  • Ask your children what they think a healthy relationship with social media should look like and help them understand your concerns.

Who knows, your family may decide after taking a break from social media that it should really be a breakup.