Your Biggest Questions About Kids and Phones, Answered

6 minute read

Today’s parents are confronting a new challenge that previous generations didn’t have to reckon with: when to get their kids a smartphone, and how to manage its use.

According to the nonprofit Common Sense Media, 43% of kids now own a smartphone by the time they’re 12.

These questions are especially pressing as Apple readies the launch of new products on Sept. 7, and the answers depend on your own child’s unique abilities and personality.

“It’s a big decision,” says Erin Wilkey Oh, content director for Common Sense Media. “There are a lot of factors to think through.”

Still, there is a potential roadmap. If you’re considering getting your child a phone, experts in kids and technology say there are a few things to consider: a child’s comfort with big responsibilities, how to keep them safe online, and how a phone will fit into their lives overall.

TIME asked experts about the basic questions parents face when choosing a phone for a child (or deciding to hold off).

When should you get your child a phone?

There’s probably no reason a child needs a phone before middle school, says Betsy Braun Brown, a child development specialist and author of You’re Not the Boss of Me. She says it also depends on an individual child’s comfort with responsibility: only get a phone when a child has proven themselves able to take care of their things and seems ready for a big new challenge.

“The kid who is still losing his jacket every week is not ready for a phone,” she says.

“Wait as long as possible,” says Julia Storm, Digital Media Wellness Educator and founder of ReConnect. Once you give your child a smartphone, you are entrusting them with an expensive—and potentially addictive device. It could change their relationship to the world around them (including you) forever, Storm says.

“From a purely developmental standpoint, young kids are not particularly well equipped to regulate their smartphone use,” says Storm.

A 2019 study from researchers at King’s College London concluded that 23% of children have “problematic smartphone usage” that leads to negative mental health effects—including depression, anxiety, stress, and sleep problems.

What’s the safest phone for a child?

Simpler phones are safer. If a younger child absolutely needs a phone—for example, to stay in touch with family—look for a flip phone and preload it with a few key phone numbers. An iPad with FaceTime can also do the trick, says Siggie Cohen, a child and family therapist based in Los Angeles. She says: “Especially since the pandemic, there is much more need to feel connected, and FaceTime lets you do that, without access to everything.”

Storm says that for younger kids, there are very good kid-friendly smartphones on the market these days. She points to Pinwheel and Gabb, simplified phones designed for kids that both limit apps and give parents control.

Storm also recommends smartwatches for kids, which can act as a “bridge between no phone and full smartphone.” A smartwatch would give kids the ability to communicate via text, but limited access to the internet, games, or social media.

Should I set up parental controls on my child’s phone?

Kids with smartphones have easy access to social media sites—and may be on them even if they’re younger than platforms allow. Twenty percent of fourth graders with phones use social media networks like Facebook and Snapchat, even though their policies require users to be at least 13 years old, according to a report from the digital literacy non-profit MediaSmarts. That makes parental controls especially important for younger kids, because bullying and unsafe behaviors can start on those sites.

The device’s content settings, found in the screen time menu, can help keep any movies or TV shows watched on the phone to PG ratings and can also only allow kids to view certain types of websites.

In general, when thinking about restrictions and limits, parents should think about getting a first phone like learning to drive, says Storm. “You can’t just hand off the keys and say ‘good luck!’ Kids need some guidance, certain restrictions and boundaries as they learn how to navigate this very complex and overwhelming landscape.”

Storm also says it’s important to start slow. Until kids are comfortable using a smartphone, parents should limit social media apps, set time limits on usage, avoid news apps (because kids can get overwhelmed and scared trying to process news on their own), and keep games off the phone.

Phones can also distract kids from sleeping, she says, so set clear rules about what time the device gets shut down and put away (outside the bedroom) at night.

How can I look out for trouble?

If kids are getting into potentially harmful situations online with bullies or strangers, there are services like Bark that scan a phone for potential red flags and alert parents. Bark scans texts, emails, and social media platforms for signs of cyberbullying, adult content, threats of violence and other dangers.

Wilkey Oh, of Common Sense Media, says that parents should teach kids what to do if something makes them feel uncomfortable, whether it’s witnessing something like bullying or hate speech. She calls it a “red flag feeling: that feeling in your stomach where you feel anxious or worried.” In those cases, kids should learn to pause, Wilkey Oh says—and think about what is going on and what is making them feel this way. Then they should talk to a trusted adult and know how to block or report someone who is behaving badly.

A parent’s tone matters, though. Talk about potentially harmful scenarios like violent content or bullying in a way that isn’t patronizing, says Cohen. “We can’t prevent what is out there, but we can actually talk about things that are inappropriate for them at their age,” she says, noting that regular discussions can remind a child that your job as a parent is to keep them safe.

What kind of discussions should I have with my child about phone use?

Brown, the author of You’re Not the Boss of Me, recommends drawing up a simple phone contract, outlining the rights and responsibilities of having a phone. Brown also advises that kids contribute to the monthly cost of the device—including repairs and purchasing apps.

“Whether it’s $15 or $5 a month, the child needs a sense of ownership,” she says. “And paying for something makes you more tuned into having it.”

She says any contract should be written collaboratively, and there’s no one-size-fits-all template for what the document should say.

Parents can also model good phone behavior, showing kids that phones aren’t simply mindless screens for endless scrolling. Wilkey Oh says when she picks up her phone in front of her kids, she dictates what she’s doing—so they know she’s using it for a reason.

“There are skills that are teachable for kids, before they start using these technologies,” Wilkey Oh says. “It’s better to have those conversations than to just assume they’ll figure it out.”

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