The experts agree: Age shouldn’t be the deciding factor in when a child receives a cellphone. Instead, parents should weigh a child’s level of maturity and need for a phone.
“You know your child better than anyone else,” says Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. “All 13-year-olds are not the same. There’s some who can handle social media and there’s some 23-year-olds who can’t. It’s really a matter of parenting your kids in the digital space just as we parent them in the physical space.”
David Anderson, a senior director of national programs and outreach at Child Mind Institute in New York, has a refreshing take: The problem is not that phones are inherently unsafe, it’s that “they displace some of the things that are really important for any child’s development.” he says. A child ready for a phone should already have other habits and support systems in place, he says: good school performance, a steady homework record, extracurriculars, face-to-face interaction with friends, plenty of family time without screens, plenty of non-screen-based activities and a healthy sleep routine.
If you decide your child is ready, the next decision is the type of phone: basic phone, feature phone or smartphone. Many parents prefer to equip their kids with a flip phone, to avoid social media apps and Internet access. (Although Sierra Filucci, editorial director of Common Sense Media in San Francisco, says that these features can still be controlled on smartphones, if preferred.) A feature phone is a middle ground, with Internet and music but without add-on apps. And, of course, a smartphone has all the bells and whistles. Then there’s secret option four: “If your child wants a phone simply to take photos and play games, consider an inexpensive tablet for your tween until they’re ready for the responsibility of their own phone with mobile data,” says Amber Mac, co-author of “Outsmarting Your Kids Online.”
Budget is the bottom line for most parents. “While kids love new devices, I’d recommend buying a previous model, a generation of two older than the latest release,” Mac says. (Choices may be limited by which service provider you have.) Make sure to give that used phone a clean slate, says Andrew Moore-Crispin, director of content at Ting Mobile in Toronto, wiping everything but the standard email, phone and messaging apps.
Once the phone is bought, don’t skimp on the case. Sascha Segan, the lead analyst for mobile at PCMag.com in New York, recommends both the Otterbox Defender and the Supcase Unicorn Beetle.
And because technology changes faster than parents can keep up, Rich maintains a page on the website for the Center on Media and Child Health called “Ask the Mediatrician” for updated information on all things media, kids and safety.
Here are some expert recommendations for great starter phones for tweens and teens.
• The LG B470 basic flip phone ($79 at amazon.com) comes with a low cost and lack of WiFi. It’s “something super-cheap with basic talk and text that doesn’t look like it’s designed for a baby,” says Filucci, noting that for some kids, a lack of coolness is powerful enough to prevent them from using their phones in front of friends — i.e., they won’t answer your call.
• Segan believes the Sonim XP3 flip phone ($190 at att.com) “is the best choice for kids who aren’t ready for a smartphone yet: It has a loud speaker, is super tough and has a three-year warranty.”
• Filucci says the Relay Kids Phone Alternative ($50 at amazon.com) includes features that parents tell Common Sense they want: no screen, GPS tracking, an SOS button and an iOS- and Android-compatible app for parents to monitor and receive messages. There’s a $9.99 monthly subscription.
• The Nokia 3310 ($60 at nokia.com) is Mac’s pick for a feature phone. Kids can talk, text, tweet and Facebook on a retro-looking phone that comes in blue, yellow, red or charcoal gray.
• If you decide your child needs a smartphone, Segan and Mac say that the iPhone 7 ($629 at apple.com) is the best entry-level iPhone. Says Segan, “Anything older will probably stop getting updates soon, and kids don’t need anything fancier than the 7.” While a new one is out of reach for most families, Mac says it’s easy to find a used or refurbished 7. It’s water-resistant, has a camera, Touch ID and up to 12 hours of battery life.
• Segan also likes the Android smartphone Moto G7 Power ($250 at motorola.com). It’s “big, durable, less expensive and has a long battery life – all good attributes in a phone for younger people,” he says. The battery lasts up to three days and can charge fast, providing nine hours of power in 15 minutes. Plus, it’s water-repellent.
• For another Android option, Mac recommends the Google Pixel 3a ($399 at store.google.com): “The Google Pixel 3a is an affordable Google smartphone with a beautiful screen, fast-charging and all-day battery life.”