When (and How) Should I Give My Child A Cell Phone?

Thinking through these things can help you decide.
By John Daum
December 17, 2019

What’s the right age and the right kind of phone for your child and how do you keep them safe in this digital age?

As a father of five children, this felt like a perpetual struggle and I soon felt like my kids had me “out-gunned” when it came to all things technological. No pressure—but this is a big part of parenting today!

Are you getting the, “I want a cell phone! I WANT A CELL PHONE!” begging and pleading from your child?

Is There A “Right” Age for a Child to Get a Cell Phone?

According to recent data, almost half of American children got a smartphone when they were between 10 & 12, with 16% getting one at age 8 and 15% getting one at age 9. The average age is 10. Some experts maintain that a child’s brain isn’t ready for a smartphone until at least 13. Tech giant Bill Gates’ three kids didn’t get one until they were 14 (that’s typically high school) even though they all complained that other kids got them earlier. Some parents look at 8th grade or high school as the “right time.”

Many experts suggest that there is no “right age” and that parents need to consider a host of other things besides their child’s age. Like…

How mature and responsible is your child? Have they mastered face-to-face communication and personal interaction? Do they already use a lot of tech at school? Have they developed as readers? (Books are the first thing jettisoned when screens are introduced.) Do they have a good grip on what your family values? Do they go outside and play? Have they developed other interests like a sport or some fine art or hobby that will help balance their digital life?

Don’t forget this key consideration: Do they even need a phone, let alone a smartphone?

Wants vs. Needs

Of course, they want a smartphone. They want all the bells and whistles like their friends have. BUT does a cell phone or smartphone meet a need, not just for your child but for you and the family as well? I remember telling one of my sons who was in 5th grade at the time and wanted a phone like their friends at school and his older siblings, “Look, you are either at school or playing in the neighborhood. I can stand at the front door and holler for you.” (When they were older and played sports with practices that often got rained out and transportation had to be arranged, it was a different story…)

If you are a single mom who works afternoons with a 5th grader at home alone for an hour or two after school, they might really need a prepaid cell phone that can text and call so you both can stay in touch. They may not necessarily need a smartphone with apps and internet access. Expect pushback on this! Many prepaid cell phones are pretty cool these days—they look cool, they take pictures, play music—one even has a dedicated button for Whatsapp.

Bottom Line: Their first phone probably just needs to be able to text and call.


Is your child ready for some serious financial responsibility? Phones can range in price from $15.98 for the USHINING (minutes are prepaid) all the way to Apple’s latest, greatest iPhone which retails for over $1,000. (Most phone carriers have cheaper, prepaid phone options like the USHINING in their store.) These devices can be big bucks!

Cell phones signal “cool” for most kids today like the latest Air Jordan sneaks did for us back in the day or like having the “right” label on your clothes still often does. (I always told my kids, “Dad pays for clothes, but Dad doesn’t pay for cool.”)

Ask Yourself This: Does your new driver’s first car need to be a used Honda Civic or a shiny new Ferrari F40? The same principle applies.

How Is Just As Important As When.

You can’t just hand a kid a cell phone or smartphone and say, “Have fun! Make good choices!General Rule: It’s much easier to start out strict and loosen up as your child proves they are responsible than it is to start out loose and then try to reign a child in. Make phone ownership healthy for them and easy on yourself.

I’ve drawn up Cell phone Contracts with my kids that stipulated appropriate phone use, grades, chores, behavior, etc., and laid out all the consequences. Sign on the dotted line. Some good life lessons there!

This changed parenting so much! I didn’t have to get mad or try to think of punishments—I just pointed to the contract hanging on the fridge. [See the sample Cell phone Contract at the end.]

** Anything below that you don’t understand (and who could blame you?), you can Google easily or ask other parents. YouTube has step-by-step videos.**

Before You Give Them A Phone…

  • Why do they need this phone? To be cool? To keep in touch? Safety Reasons?
  • Does your child need a smartphone? Can their needs be met by another type of phone or device?


  • Have you and your child made and signed a cell phone contract?
  • Did you familiarize yourself with the safety features of both your phone carrier (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc.) as well as the phone’s operating system and any apps on the phone? (You can set controls for a certain amount of screen time, content, data & location privacy, notifications, and the ability to make purchases.)
  • Set up the phone so that your finger or face unlocks the phone. Set/know ANY passwords.

After You Give Them A Phone

  • (These are examples of the kinds of things covered in the Cell phone Contract you and your child agree to and sign. Stick to it! It’s your house and your phone!)
  • Have “Tech-Free” times and zones in your home. (For example—no tech on Sunday nights, no tech after 8 PM during the week, no tech at the table during meals, no tech in bedrooms—at the very least, have your child’s phone charge in your room overnight.) You have the ability to “disable” the phone after a set amount of screen time. Use it!
  • Check that phone—frequently! You can have set times and surprise “spot” checks. (Don’t “freak out” over what you might find. Have conversations and stick to your Cell phone Contract.)
  • Make sure you read up on the apps on your child’s phone and have the login information for them. (Apple’s App Store lists age recommendations, content, and if there are “In-App Purchases.” Example: social media app Snapchat is rated 12+ but lists “Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content and Nudity” under “Content.”)

Cell phones are basic necessities in modern life. I get it. You get it. Your child wants it. 96% of American adults have cell phones, with 81% of those being smartphones. With our kids, it’s become a matter of “when,” not “if.” Don’t forget the “how.”

REMEMBER: We’re modeling how to use a cell phone for our child. More is caught than taught.

  1. Is your phone forever and always attached to your hand?
  2. Do rings and beeps and notifications PULL you out of conversations with your family?
  3. What do you reach for when you have spare or downtime? Your phone, the remote, or a book or a crossword puzzle?
  4. Are you already intentional about family time? Family game night? Family night? No-Tech play? Meal-times together with no technology allowed? Intentional about real conversations?

***There are more ways to get in touch than the latest iPhone or Android phone. Consider one of these tech-wise options if you just need to keep in touch, rather than give your child access to the internet and the world of apps and social media.

  • Relay by Republic Wireless: Relay is a screen-free, push-to-talk phone that works with 4G LTE and WiFi. It combines instant, nationwide communication with GPS tracking and geofencing. Parents control who can contact children and what features they use. The Relay device is normally available at Target and Amazon for a little under $50 per device.
  • Gizmo Watch: The Gizmo Watch provides two-way voice calling and messaging with up to 10 trusted contacts of your choice. Parents can check the location of the Gizmo Watch from their own smartphone and even set GPS boundaries and receive automated alerts when a child exceeds them. The waterproof watch also includes a fitness tracker and a to-do list to manage chores and homework. Prices vary. Check out Verizon Wireless and Best Buy to purchase.
  • The Jitterbug Flip: The Jitterbug is an old-school flip phone with no access to the internet. No apps can be downloaded either. The phone is durable with long-lasting battery life. Kids can call, text and take pictures on it.
  • Light Phone 2: The Light Phone 2 is exactly what parents have been looking for in a phone for their kids. With its intriguing design, it has a “cool factor” beyond any basic phone without all the bells and whistles that come with a sleek smartphone. The Light Phone 2 will never have feeds, social media, advertisements, news or email. The phone simply includes calling, texting, music, an alarm clock, and a calendar. 
  • Z1 Gabb Phone: Gabb Wireless is on a mission to protect children, connect families and encourage life outside the screen. They’ve designed the Z1 Gabb phone without the internet or an app store. Kids can call, text and have access to a basic suite of essentials limited to a calculator, calendar and alarm. There are no games or social media. The phone does have a camera but kids can’t receive or send text messages with pictures in the message. Group text messages also are not allowed. The phone is $99 and the monthly service plan is $19.99. Here’s a direct link to the Gabb Wireless website.


SAMPLE CELL PHONE CONTRACT: Your contract should cover these basic areas, but make any changes specific to your family situation or needs.

Cell Phone Responsibilities for Child

  • I’ll share my phone’s password with my parents and they may use it to check my phone at any time.
  • I won’t send threatening or mean texts to others.
  • I will not text or place phone calls after 9 p.m.
  • I’ll keep my phone charged at all times.
  • I’ll answer or respond promptly when my parents contact me.
  • I will not bring my cell phone to the family dinner table.
  • I will not go over our plan’s monthly minutes or text message limits. If I do, I understand that I may be responsible for paying any additional charges or that I may lose my cell phone privileges.
  • I’m responsible for knowing where my phone is, and for keeping it in good condition.
  • I’ll obey the rules of etiquette regarding cell phones in public places. I will make sure my phone is turned off when I am in a formal gathering, restaurants, or other quiet settings.
  • I’ll obey any rules my school has regarding cell phones, such as turning them off during class, or keeping them on vibrate while riding the school bus.
  • I will alert my parents when I receive suspicious or alarming phone calls or text messages from people I don’t know.
  • I’ll also alert my parents if I’m being harassed by someone via my cell phone.
  • I will not use my cell phone to bully another person.
  • I understand that having a cell phone can be helpful in an emergency, but I know that I must still practice good judgment and make good choices that will keep me out of trouble and out of danger.
  • I’ll send no more than _____ texts per day.
  • I will not send embarrassing photos of my family or friends to others. In addition, I will not use my phone’s camera to take embarrassing photos of others.
  • I will not use my phone to buy or download anything without asking permission first.


  • I understand that having a cell phone is a privilege and that if I fail to adhere to this contract, my cell phone privilege may be revoked.
  • If needed, I may help pay for the cost of the phone and/or for excess charges that I incur without permission from my parents.
  • I understand that my cell phone may be taken away based upon my behavior toward my parents and/or siblings, if I fail to do my chores, or if I fail to keep my grades up.

Parent Responsibilities

  • I understand that I will make myself available to answer any questions my child might have about owning a cell phone and using it responsibly.
  • I will support my child when they alert me to an alarming message that they have received.
  • I’ll alert my child if our cell phone plan changes and impacts the plan’s minutes.
  • I will give my child _______ warning(s) before I take his or her cell phone away.
  • I reserve the right to discuss and make changes to this contract as needed.

Signed ______________________________ [Child]

Signed ______________________________ [Parents]

Date ______________________________

Image from Unsplash.com

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