December 1, 2020

The Social Institute’s Guide To Buying Your Child A Smartphone

By Laura Tierney, Founder and CEO of The Social Institute

The holiday season has officially arrived, which means millions of parents throughout the world are contemplating the exact same watershed decision:

“Should I buy my child their first smartphone?”

On the surface, it’s a simple yes/no question. Yet when unpacking everything that goes into making that decision, it’s a question that soon crosses into murky waters full of “what ifs” that depends on each family’s unique set of circumstances. Rather than endorsing a universal one-size-fits-all recommendation, The Social Institute instead offers up guidelines to help every family make an informed decision that is right for them.

Four questions to ask

Owning a smartphone extends far beyond an arbitrary age. 

One of the most popular questions I receive every year around this time is, “what is the right age to own a phone?” It’s a question asked by parents, educators, and the media, many of whom are often in search of that one magic number.

Truth be told, there is no right age for the simple reason that every child is different. While the average age for a child getting their first smartphone is now 10.3 years old, that doesn’t mean every 10-year-old is ready to assume that responsibility. The average age does not equate to the right age.

Rather than asking about a universal arbitrary age that ignores all context, I posit four questions every parent should consider to help inform their family decision.

  1. Am I a good role model?
  2. Do I have help to coach my child?
  3. Is my child mature enough for the responsibility?
  4. Can they manage family devices?

It’s not reasonable to hand a child a smartphone for the very first time and hold them to a higher standard than what they’ve seen with their own two eyes. The children are always watching, and as the famous saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Nobody suddenly wakes up one day with the skills needed to manage a device responsibly.

Luckily, there are three easy ways to check if you and others are setting a good example:

  • Do you use a phone while driving?
  • Do you look down at your phone when having a conversation?
  • Do you set aside ‘tech-free’ times at home?

These are far from all-encompassing, but they do help establish a strong foundation. Being intentional about your own usage sets a good example and reduces the risk of contentious double standards.

Of course, building strong tech habits takes time and can’t be done by merely watching others. Introducing a new phone out of the blue without any previous practice is akin to tossing the car keys to a new driver without any prior experience. Driver’s ed and learner’s permits… they exist for a reason!

My advice? Talk about it early and often. Set agreed upon limits with shared family devices. Establish clear priorities and expectations. Make your child comfortable with the idea of managing their own device before actually introducing one into the equation. The extra effort now saves plenty of headaches later and ensures everyone is on the same page from square one.

Five tips to implement right away

So you’re taking the plunge. Now what?

Setting your child up for success extends beyond being a good role model and practicing with family devices. While it’s undoubtedly an ever-evolving process that takes time and effort, here are five steps you can take right away to get off to a strong start.

  1. Sign a Family Social Standards Agreement. Search around online, and you’ll most likely come across stale technology contracts that require only the child to sign it and focuses on what a child agrees NOT to do. How we interact with phones, tablets, TVs, computers, watches, bluetooth speakers, and every other piece of tech woven into our lives impacts everyone. Consider an agreement the whole family signs around high standards that everyone — even parents — agrees to live up to online. The Social Institute teamed up with students and parents to create a one-of-a-kind Family Social Standards Agreement with nine standards around social media and digital etiquette that can be customized to fit your family’s needs.
  2. Install the ‘Ask To Buy’ feature. If your family uses Apple devices, consider using the Family Sharing and Ask To Buy features. Whenever your child tries to purchase or download any apps, you’ll be notified so that you can review the request before either approving or declining. This includes anything from iTunes to in-app purchases like bonus game levels or ad removals. Google Play has a similar feature for Android and other non-Apple devices.
  3. Turn off group text notifications. Texting with large groups of people is especially popular with middle school students. Let’s say your child’s soccer team is having one text conversation, and her biology class study group is having another. That’s a lot of people… and a lot of notifications. Turn them off for each group individually. On iPhones, tap the contacts at the top of a message, click on the “i” just below them, and then scroll down to select “Hide Alerts.”
  4. Take advantage of the nighttime settings. Smartphones emit blue light, which blocks the release of melatonin, the hormone that controls a person’s sleep cycle. Most smart devices come with a night mode option – Apple calls is Night Shift mode, Windows calls it Light Night and some Android phones simply call it Night Mode. Find it in the device’s settings area, usually in the display or brightness section. The National Sleep Foundation recommends no screen time for an hour before bedtime.
  5. Include a “Strike A Balance” gift package. Set up your child for success as they learn to strike a balance with a new, connected device. 
    • Purchase an alarm clock. Your child doesn’t need a smart-anything to get up in time for school, and experts say they will sleep much better if a new device is recharging in another room.
    • Use Bluetooth speakers for bedtime music. Does your child need music to fall asleep to? Stream it from their shiny new device (charging in another room) to a Bluetooth speaker.

A phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer all make great holiday presents. Still, gift-givers typically operate under the assumption that gift-receivers will be responsible for owning and operating such devices. Ensure your child isn’t overwhelmed and they are prepared to strike a balance with this added responsibility.

One major takeaway

Every child, family, and phone is different. Furthermore, what’s true today may not be true tomorrow. The best way to control ever-changing circumstances is to keep the conversation going.

As our interactions with technology evolve, so too should our conversations. For more pro tips on talking about smartphones with your children, check out TSI’s Family Huddles located on the Parent toolkit at TheSocialInstitute.com.

Happy Holidays!


About The Social Institute

The Social Institute partners with schools nationwide to empower students, parents, and educators to navigate social-emotional health, social media, and technology positively through comprehensive, gamified lessons that meet students on their level as well as. We have partnered with forward-thinking institutions across the nation, including Ravenscroft School, Gaston Day School, Miss Porter’s School, Gilman School, Woodward Academy, U.S. Olympic athletes, Duke Men’s Basketball, ESPN, and others. For more information, contact us.