The Safest Phones for Kids of All Ages: A Guide to Picking Your Child’s First Phone
Your choice for your kid’s first smartphone can impact their digital security.
Here’s how to make the right decision.
Parents today are both blessed and cursed by the technology they have at their fingertips. Take smartphones, for instance. Their ability to help us keep tabs on our children is incredible. We can track their whereabouts, see if they got home safe, and communicate with them with ease.
Those same smartphones, however, can harbor nasty malware and trackers that can compromise our children’s physical and digital safety. Not to mention, online predators frequent apps and websites that are readily accessible through an internet-connected phone.
When shopping for your child’s first phone, it is essential to find the perfect balance between safety and features, and this guide will help you do just that. But first, let’s discuss what age is right for your child’s first smartphone.
At What Age Should I Buy My Kid a Phone?
There are no regulations dictating the minimum age at which kids should be allowed to own a phone. That’s left to the discretion of the parents.
Research suggests that smartphone ownership is aging down. In 2019, 19 percent of 8-year-olds already had their own smartphone, and by the time they turned 11 the number jumped to 53 percent.1
We also have to remember what peer pressure feels like. By the time our children reach middle school, many of their peers already have a phone, which may make them want one of their own even more.
Parents, however, are the main decision-makers about whether our kids are ready for the responsibility of owning a phone. It’s undoubtedly a tough decision to make, so be sure to read our article on what to know before buying your kid a smartphone.
Picking the Safest Phone for Your Kid
The first thing to keep in mind when shopping for a child-safe phone is that it doesn’t have to be an iPhone or Android. There are lots of phone options designed specifically for kids that can keep smartphone dangers at arm’s length.
To figure out if that’s the right course for you and your youngster, you need a checklist of features you want (and don’t want) for your kid. Here are some examples of features these kid-friendly phones offer. Whether they’re necessary is up to you.
- Texting and calling: These staple phone features let you communicate with your kid in real time. Although useful, they are not without dangers, since “smishing,” a form of phishing scam, can be executed through texts alone.
- Location sharing: We want to stay informed about our kids’ whereabouts at all times, especially when they’re just starting to explore the world. Location sharing comes in handy, but phones can be hacked and this feature could potentially lead criminals to our kids’ locations too.
- Apps: There are lots of useful and child-friendly smartphone apps that can aid in our children’s education, but there are also lots of apps that are not at all safe for kids.
- Games: Video games are not bad. They can help develop a child’s brain — when moderated. The danger comes from excessive gaming and the inappropriate themes some games feature.
- Utilities: These are features such as a camera, a video and music player, and others your kid may find enjoyable and useful. They’re harmless, but they could make your child spend more time in front of a screen, and too much screen time is not good for a child’s developing brain.
Besides those phone features for kids, we should also look into whether a child-safe phone has parental-control features. Ask these questions when picking a phone for your kid:
- Do I want to track their phone usage and limit their screen time?
- Do I need to monitor their digital communications?
- Do I need to limit who they are allowed to talk to?
The More You Know: If you let your kid use a phone that connects to the internet, be sure to put a VPN and antivirus software on the phone. These tools will help protect your kids from online dangers such as malware and IP address tracking.
Safest Phones for Kids of All Ages
Now that we have a general idea of what to look for in a child-friendly phone, it’s time to zoom in on age groups to focus the search on the safest phones for each group.
For Younger Children (Ages 8 Below)
At this age, it’s probably best to look for a minimalist phone. Think of it like getting them a phone with training wheels — one that will allow for text messaging, calling, and other features you deem essential, but with none of the bells and whistles that could potentially lead to online dangers.
The safest phones for young children may not be actual phones at all. There are smartwatches that, besides looking cool, offer basic phone functionalities.
The Verizon SyncUp Kids Watch is text- and call-ready, and you can approve the contacts with whom they can communicate. It also features real-time location tracking, alerts for when your youngster crosses a virtual boundary, and an easy-access 911 button. It’s as simple as it gets, and simple is good for young children who are just starting to learn the ropes of staying safe online.
FYI: It’s much safer to let younger kids access online content (e.g. YouTube Kids, educational apps, and games) from our phone rather than give them their own smartphone. It’s also recommended that we supervise them as they access online content so we can steer them away from dangers.
For Kids (Ages 8 to 12)
A smartwatch with phone features may work for younger kids, but at some point they’ll start asking for a real phone. “But everyone has one,” they’ll say.
When they’ve proven themselves mature enough to have a real phone, there are options that offer features beyond texts and calls but are still safe for kids. Usually these are dumbed-down smartphones. They can connect to the internet and possibly download a few apps, but strict parental controls are still there.
One of the options we found is the Palm Kids phone. It’s an Android phone about the size of a credit card. It has front and back cameras, location-tracking features, internet connectivity, and more — basically everything you’d expect from an Android phone.
For parental controls, you’ll rely mostly on the Google Family Link app, which is Google’s parental-control software built into Android.2 Through the software, you can limit their app downloads, monitor their communications, and limit how much time they spend in front of their phone.
If you think the Palm Kids phone is too advanced for your kid, another option is to get a basic flip phone. We know what you’re thinking: “But flip phones are obsolete!” Not really. There are still basic flip phones, such as the Tracfone Alcatel MyFlip, and they’ve been upgraded with more modern features. They can connect to the internet over Wi-Fi, take pictures, play music and videos, and more, but they are more limited than smartphones.
For Teens (Ages 13 and Up)
This is where it gets a bit trickier. Teenagers will want to have more freedom with their phone usage, especially since 13 is the minimum age for users on most social media sites. Eventually you may decide to give your kid a more full-featured smartphone, but that doesn’t mean you have to take off the training wheels.
Tip: Even though 13 is the minimum age for most social media sites, it is still a good idea to set up your teenager’s social media yourself or to guide them in doing so. There are privacy settings, for example, you need to set up to ensure online predators, cyberbullies, and bad influences don’t get to them.
When your youngster enters teenhood, it’s no longer just about picking the safest phone, but about setting the right parental controls. Even an iPhone or Android smartphone can be considered safe for a teenager if you set it up correctly with parental controls.
Here are some parental-control features and limitations to consider:
- App downloads: iOS and Android both let you disable app downloads. You can also set age restrictions to limit what they can download, or even block apps you deem inappropriate or risky.
- Screen time limits: You can also limit how much time they spend on their smartphones. On iOS, for example, you can set a time limit for each app or app category (e.g. games, or social media) in addition to setting a limit on their overall screen time.
- Content filters: It’s also wise to set content filters, especially considering how curious teenagers can be. You can turn on safe browser search, for instance, to remove adult content from web searches.
- Monitor communications: Monitoring text messages and phone calls is also possible, usually through third-party parental-control software. You can block text messaging and calling during certain hours, prevent unknown contacts from messaging your kids, or limit their contacts to people you trust.
- Location tracking: If your kid is part of your virtual family circle, it’s easy to track their whereabouts to ensure they are safe.
Those are just examples, and you’ll find that both iOS and Android parental-control software offers more comprehensive features. Check out our guide to setting up iPhone parental controls here.
One key advantage of giving your kid a full-featured smartphone with parental controls is that it can adapt as they become more mature. You can eventually loosen the restrictions as they mature, so you’re helping them learn how to be a responsible smartphone owner.
Of course, it’s not without downsides. There are ways to get around the parental controls of both iOS and Android devices. Our advice is to keep open and honest lines of communication with your teenager about why these restrictions are in place.
Our Final Words
Buying your kid’s first phone is a huge decision that will likely have an impact on their view of digital and online safety as they grow up. It can be likened to buying your first car. The flashiest and latest model may sound nice, but you need to start with one that is safe, easy to drive, and easy to maintain. When you buy your dream car, you’ll know what you’re doing and how to take care of it.
Starting your child with a basic phone and then slowly upgrading to a more feature-rich smartphone as they mature will help them develop healthy digital habits. When you eventually take off the training wheels, they’ll know how to use their smartphone responsibly.
FAQs About the Safest Phones for Kids
Did we miss anything? Check out these FAQs to unlock answers to your burning questions about child-safe phones.
Is it OK for a child younger than 8 years old to have a phone?
There is no exact age at which it’s considered safe for children to have a smartphone. Only you, the parent, can tell if your child is responsible enough to own a phone. If the purpose of buying your kid a phone is communication, there are safer alternatives, such as smartwatches with text and call capabilities.
Which has better parental controls, iOS or Android?
Android and iOS are on par with each other in terms of parental controls. The question of which is better boils down to your preferences. Android is more comprehensive, so it’s the better choice if you’re looking to monitor all your child’s online activities. iPhones provide a more seamless experience, so it’s significantly easier to set up iOS parental controls.
Are there downsides to giving a child a phone?
There are quite a few downsides to giving a child a phone. For starters, it could expose them to online dangers, especially if you choose a phone that connects to the internet. It may also hamper their social development, since research suggests that having a smartphone diverts attention to screens rather than family or peers. Given how integral phones are to our lives, however, it makes sense to give them a phone when they’re ready — provided you set it up with parental controls to keep them safe.
What are some apps I should be worried about for my kid?
Social media apps and video games are some of the top concerns for parents. We recommend strictly following the age rating of apps on Google Play and the App Store, since they can help you filter apps that generally are not safe for kids. You should also look into hiding apps or apps that camouflage as a different type of app while they actually hide photos, videos, and other content your kid may be trying to hide from you.
Should kids be allowed to browse the internet?
In most cases, older kids can be allowed to browse the internet as long as there are safety nets in place. Before letting your kid browse the web, you should set up firewalls, block inappropriate websites and content, and use a VPN and antivirus software.
Common Sense. (2019, Oct 29). Tweens, Teens, and Phones: What Our 2019 Research Reveals.
Google. Help keep your family safer online.