What is the Right Age to Give Your Child a Cell Phone?

Back when my kids were still in elementary school, my wife and I fiercely resisted the trend to provide our kids with cell phones. Admittedly, it was a bit easier to do so just a few years ago when not quite everyone had given a phone to every child over the age of five.  As it turned out, we got phones for them a couple of years earlier than we planned on doing so, but a couple of years after our kids thought they were ready.

Giving a cell phone to a child has greater implications than we often think. There are arguments for giving it to them as soon as possible, and others—just as good—for waiting. There’s no perfect age since each child matures at a different rate, and can handle the responsibilities and privileges of cell phone ownership at different times.

What are the factors that might influence your decision one way or the other?

The arguments for delaying a cell phone as long you can

There’s a chain of events that gets set off the moment you buy a cell phone for your child.  So before getting him one, consider how life might begin to play out when you do.

Cost. This is an obvious consideration.  There are ways to moderate it through different phones and plans, however the best conceived ideas combining kids, cell phones and saving money are at best a tough balancing act.  Take a prepaid plan with limited minutes, and the child can have them used up before he ever has a need to call you.  I’ve known people who have taken prepaid or very limited plans, only to convert them to something more generous a few months later.   They’re kids, so we have to have flexibility built into any plan, and that will cost extra.

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Cell phones aren’t toys. As a rule kids tend to be casual about their possessions and instilling a sense of responsibility can be a challenge.  The younger they are, the more difficult this will be.   But to a child under ten just about anything is a toy.  Not only will they drop it, toss it and play catch with it but they’ll find a way to use it for everything but its intended purpose.

Child with cell phoneDistraction. The younger children are the more easily they get distracted.   And while they already have plenty of distractions in their lives, cell phones add an extra dimension: they’re portable! Not only will your child be distracted when sitting in front of the TV or computer, but his phone will be a constant traveling companion that will keep him occupied when he should be doing other things.

Theft and loss. We all lose things, we all have items stolen from us.   But like it or not, kids lose them quicker, and seem to live in a world crawling with sticky-fingered peers.  Yes, there are insurance plans to help cover this, but a child can test the limits of just about any plan you have.   The younger your kids are, the more likely they are to lose their phones, or have them stolen.  This is a strong argument against providing phones for very young children.

Proper use. Now that cell phones are so common, they’ve also become an issue in school.  Use of cell phones in school is usually handled by confiscation.  At my kids’ schools, they can retrieve the phones at the end of the day on a first offense, and after that only the parent can get them back.  The younger the child, the more trips you’ll need to make to the front office to retrieve a confiscated phone.  I’m certain detentions are meted out after a certain number of confiscations.  The point is, your child needs to be able to comprehend and apply proper judgment on when and where to use his phone.

The arguments for giving it to them as young as possible

I’ve come up with fewer reasons for giving a child a cell phone earlier, but at least two of them are enough to offset a multitude of others.

Keeping tabs on them. As each year passes in a child’s life they venture farther from home and for longer periods of time.   As normal as this may be, as parents we still need to know where they are, especially when they’re young.  Cell phones are a critical way of maintaining a connection when kids out of sight.

Safety and emergencies. It should be enough that cell phones can give you immediate contact with your children in a crisis, but they do even more.  If you have young children and you’ve ever taken them to Disney World you’ll appreciate this point quickly.  No matter how careful you are, kids have a way of getting separated from their parents, especially in crowded places.  But if they have cell phones you’ll be able to find them quickly, and just as important, it will eliminate the panic that can set in when they disappear.  Ever since we got cell phones for our kids, trips to the park, the mall and yes, even Disney World, aren’t nearly as scary.

Social factors. This shouldn’t be a factor, but it’s a major consideration for your child.  As kids are getting cell phones at increasingly earlier ages, social factors become real.  No child wants to be one of only three kids in her class who doesn’t have a cell phone.   And worse, those cell phones “need” to be of a certain type, and carry socially desirable features to make the cut.  Like it or not, the social component will be a factor in your cell phone choice sooner or later.  My guess is sooner…

What we finally decided

Our son began pestering us for his own cell phone when he was ten.  Our plan was to get one for him when he got to high school, but reality has a way of turning the best laid plans into dust.

We got one for him for his 12th birthday, and then a year later for our daughter when she turned 11.  Keeping tabs on them was reason number one, but safety and emergency considerations were a close second.

One winter day—you know, that time of year when it starts to get dark shortly after lunch—my son was out playing with his friends and wasn’t home before nightfall.  We searched the neighborhood with no luck, all the time thinking to ourselves ”this wouldn’t be happening if he had a cell phone”. His birthday wasn’t for another three months, but the decision to get one for him was made that night—two years ahead of schedule.

What do you think is the right age to get a cell phone for a child? What factors might influence your decision?

Photo by apdk

About kevinmercadante

Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, OutOfYourRut.com. He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut

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  1. “Mobile phone use ‘raises children’s risk of brain cancer fivefold'”

    • Tad – I’ve heard the arguments going both ways, enough that I think the results are inconclusive. If it’s turns out to be true, then we’re all doomed!

      I don’t mean to dismiss this claim lightly, but it seems that nearly every component of human existence has at one time or other been claimed to cause cancer.

      • Haley Mcmanus says:

        I think the best age is around 11 our 12. But im a protective parent…so maybe 10 is a good age. Not sure

  2. I haven’t had to deal with this yet as our son is only 9 months old, but in thinking about it I can’t think of many reasons why our kids would really NEED phones. I remember when we grew up no one except fancy stock brokers had mobile phones, and we all seemed to get along just fine. To me I think the main reason the kids want one nowadays is because everyone else has one, and there is a big social aspect to it. But the added expense makes me wonder if it’s really worth it. I guess we’ll see when our son is 12 and starts asking for one. Of course by then it’ll be “c’mon dad, I want an implantable ear communication device! All the kids have one!”.

    • I remember when I was younger y folks would tell me to make sure I had a dime, then a quarter, on me so I could make phone calls. Now we need a whole phone!

      Our oldest, 11, has already asked about a phone. We’ve held off for now but I’m not sure for how much longer. She’s going to sleepaway camp for the first time and we’re considering getting her a phone when she goes away.

      Getting another monthly plan is something we don’t want to have to pay.

    • I’m guessing he’ll be asking sooner than 12! It might depend on where you live and how indulged the kids are that he grows up around. In our neck of the woods the kids are probably a bit more pampered than elsewhere. Kids usually have phones long before 12.

  3. My son got a cell phone right before his 9th birthday. I know that’s obscenely young, but it was the only way I could have peace of mind. I work an hour from home – every day, a different family member waits at our house for the bus to drop him off and babysits until I get home.

    One day, my mother was in a car accident on the way to my house. She wasn’t injured, but she was stuck for quite awhile talking to the police and totally forgot to call someone to pick up my son. He got home, found the house locked with no one there, and completely freaked out. He was scared to knock on a neighbor’s door (stranger danger!) and didn’t have any way to contact anyone.

    When my mom finally got there, he had cried himself to sleep on the porch swing. He had nightmares for weeks and I felt like the most horrible parent in the world. The next day, I bought him a cell phone and taught him how to use it.

    • Oh wow. Poor guy must have been terrified and confused. Unfortunately, those things happen, though it’s rare. I’m sure you’re a great parent, there’s just no way to think of every possible situation.

      It’s almost like a cell phone is insurance in case something happens.

    • Andrea – That was our concern as well. I think in your situation, with the distance you commute, you definately did the right thing getting the phone. It wouldn’t be too early in that situation. At a minimum, a prepaid plan could do the job at minimal expense, as long as you can convince him that the phone is only for emergencies. After his scare, he’s probably open to what ever you tell him.

  4. Scott Messner says:

    I would suggest using a Tracfone will prepaid minutes. Only to be used to call Mom or Dad. Much cheaper than getting them their own phone.

    • Scott – Sounds like the perfect starter phone for a young child. Or a superb “time out” phone for an older one who can’t obey the rules…:-)

    • Haley Mcmanus says:

      A good idea Scott messner is to get unlimited text and call! So they can text mom dad and a couple of friends! Thats what I do with my 13 year old

  5. Once a child already needs a cell phone, I believe it is the right time for him to have it. Age will not be the sole factor that has to be considered. The maturity of a child to handle the device is another thing that has to be considered by parents before giving them a cell phone. At the same time, parents should know the kind of cell phone to give to their children to keep them from being destructed because of the device. A simple cell phone with an emergency response system such as Just5 is more ideal as compared to a cell phone with sophisticated features like smartphone.

  6. As I’ve observed, most parents prefer to give their children a cell phone when they are already 13 years old and above. But I don’t think age is the sole thing that has to be considered when deciding whether to give children a cell phone. The need for them to have the device including their maturity to handle it are factors that have to be considered as well. Besides, with the availability of cell phones with basic features such as Jus5, cell phone usage can become beneficial to the little ones.