Things I Wish I Knew Before Giving My Kid a Smartphone

The choices you make about your children’s screen time will become lifetime habits, so choose wisely.

Matthew Adkins Matthew Adkins, Staff Writer, VPN & Antivirus

Giving kids a smartphone

Your child’s digital life begins the day you plop your iPhone down on a restaurant table with a clip of Elmo playing so you can catch your breath and eat your food.

Before you know it, you’re at Best Buy shopping for their first tablet. Then comes the big day when you open a Gmail account so they can chat with Grandma in Florida.

It’s all going pretty smoothly — a few screen-time battles, the classic “parental control” showdown — and then, out of the blue it seems, they’re asking for an iPhone of their own because “everyone has one!”

Chances are you’re going to give in at some point. But before you do, consider the following seven hard-learned lessons about tween smartphone reality.

Did You Know: Most kids in the U.S. get their first phone when they’re about 10. But you may want to follow Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ lead and hold off until the much safer age of 14.1

1. You Don’t Have to Start With a Smartphone

Not all tweens beg for smartphones, but some parents still feel a mobile device is the only way they can keep an eye on their kids. If that’s you, consider this pretty clever alternative a friend of mine came up with.

Paulina’s 10-year-old son, Cody, decided he was old enough to walk home from school by himself. Paulina is no helicopter mom, but she wasn’t ready to let her little boy loose on the streets alone. Instead of a phone, she bought him a speaker-ready smartwatch she linked to her phone. It was a win-win. Paulina could check in when she wanted, and Cody thought the smartwatch was pretty cool.

If you want to keep tabs on your little ones but you aren’t comfortable giving them a smartphone yet, try an alternative device first.

2. They’re Never Too Young for the “Scams and Predators” Talk

Introducing our kids to the wonderful world of internet scammers and sleazeballs can cause parents a lot of anxiety. How exactly do you explain the concept of an online predator or a phishing scam to a 6-year-old anyway? (Most of my grown friends don’t know exactly what phishing is!)

My hard-won advice? Don’t. Start simple. “This is Daddy’s phone. Daddy doesn’t answer calls from anyone he doesn’t know. When he gets a message from a stranger on Facebook, he doesn’t message back.” If they’re really little, role playing can help.

However you get the message across, little kids who learn simple rules about online boundaries and privacy will fare a lot better on the open web. If you start early, being cautious will be second nature by the time they ask for a phone of their own.

FYI: What’s the right age to talk to kids about digital safety? Kindergarten, according to Dr. Catherine Pearlman, author of First Phone. 2

3. Parental Controls Are About Kids’ Safety, Not Your Control

Apple and Google agree on at least one thing: Kids can’t use their devices and services without parent or guardian approval. For parents who want more say in what their children do online, both companies give the option to limit access to pretty much anything: devices, hours, apps, purchases. That’s what we call “parental controls” in the home security business.

It didn’t take long for my kids to wise up to the fact that it wasn’t exactly fair that I could control their tablets from afar. In their eyes, I was an evil dictator magically shutting them out of Netflix. In my mind, I was protecting them from the evils of online predators and screen addiction.

How do you get out of this stalemate? Don’t ignore your kids’ feelings. Listen to them, explain your rationale, and try to be flexible — but stick to your guns. Screen addiction may not be an official mental health disorder yet3, but a 9-year-old who can’t take her thumbs off TikTok isn’t a pretty sight either.

4. It’s Never Too Early for Online Privacy

The picture isn’t too rosy when it comes to online privacy — we don’t have much of it these days, at home or on the go — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give our kids a fighting chance.

Google’s search engine may be the default for many of us, but you don’t have to set your little ones up on the company’s web browser, Chrome, which is surveillance central. My personal go-to for my kids is Mozilla’s privacy-centered Firefox, which isn’t in the ad business like Google. Firefox hates cookies and Facebook trackers as much as I do, and it blocks tons of them every day.

Is setting up my kids on Firefox going to stop data brokers from building profiles of them? Maybe not entirely. But it teaches them that privacy matters and, to a degree, it’s their choice.

Did You Know: Kids from ages 8 to 10 spend an average of six hours a day glued to their screens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By the time they turn 11, that number jumps to nine hours a day, including five hours of TV4.

5. Innocent-Looking Apps Can Harbor Ugly Malware

If your kids are anything like mine, around the age of 9 they’re going to ask you for a new app about once an hour. Be very careful which apps you approve. (If your kids don’t need your approval to download apps, activate the parental control now.)

I’ve learned to steer away from free apps that blitzkrieg my kids with in-app purchases. Paying a few bucks for a higher-quality, self-contained game is better than worrying about them clicking on an unintentional purchase or a bad link lurking in a free app.

And don’t forget: Kids can also download money-gobbling apps on their laptops. Don’t fall into that trap. Check out our guide to child-proofing your kids’ laptops.

6. 13 Is Social Media Age for a Reason

Imagine this: You’re on vacation, cozying up on the couch with a book, and the only sounds are the cicadas in the live oaks — and two tiny thumbs scrolling through an endless TikTok feed. (Those thumbs belong to your 9-year-old niece, by the way, who somehow has a TikTok account.)

How did this happen? You need to be 13 to get on TikTok, right? Not exactly. TikTok has a walled-off version for tikes, with no sharing or commenting allowed. Your well-meaning sister-in-law gave in because, well, TikTok accounts are like iPhones: “Everyone has one!”

Not to wield the hammer of righteousness here, but given how unhappy social media makes us — and that TikTok is a well-known haven for sexual predators5 — I’d consider taking TikTok’s minimum age requirement seriously.

FYI: A third of TikTok’s estimated 1 billion users may actually be 14 or under.

7. Parents Need to Set an Example

Parents give kids endless lectures about what they can and can’t do online, when they can do it, and how they can do it.

Too much screen time is bad; reading is healthier. A half-hour of social media per day, and screens off at 7.

Sound familiar? And yet, there’s Dad (guilty as charged) in bed at 10 p.m., iPhone in hand, scrolling through his Twitter feed, the book he was supposed to be reading closed on the night table.

The hardest lesson of all is the one we need to learn ourselves as example-setters: We can’t encourage or enforce healthy smartphone habits in our kids that we don’t follow ourselves.

Final Thoughts

It used to be that you taught your kids how to ride a bike, then you gave them the keys to their first car. Those were the big milestones. Now their first smartphone is sandwiched uncomfortably in between.

The problem is, while a kid’s brain and body are perfectly calibrated for a bike at age four or five, we simply don’t know when our children are ready for smartphones.

Yes, they can absorb online skills and information like mini typhoons, but there’s a lot they don’t get and plenty that can harm them for life. It may seem as though every kid in your child’s sixth-grade class is sporting an iPhone, but whether you decide to buy them one is one decision where peer pressure should take a backseat.

Citations

1. Mirror. (2018). Billionaire tech mogul Bill Gates reveals he banned his children from mobile phones until they turned 14.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/tech/billionaire-tech-mogul-bill-gates-10265298

2. Penguin Random House. (2022). First Phone.
https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/700480/first-phone-by-catherine-pearlman-phd-lcsw/

3. NPR. (2018). Screen Addiction Among Teens: Is There Such A Thing?.
https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/02/05/579554273/screen-addiction-among-teens-is-there-such-a-thing?t=1661435918374

4. CDC. (2018). Screen Time vs. Lean Time Infographic.
https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/multimedia/infographics/getmoving.html

5. BBC. (2019). Video app TikTok fails to remove online predators.
https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-47813350