One of the most frequent requests I receive from parents is to discuss the right age to buy a child their first phone, what type of phone to buy and how to establish and enforce phone usage rules. Back to school is the perfect time for families to create family rules for existing kid phones and establish new rules for kids just starting to use cell phones.
Our older son received a call and text only phone for middle school and then a smartphone for high school after he proved he could not only follow our family phone use rules but also engage with us in regular “phone safety” discussions. Now that our twin boys are heading off the middle school, we decided it was time to buy them their first phone and set up new family phone use rules. Here are some of the tips from our experience of setting up our kids with their first phone. Please share your tips!
Tips To Buying First Kid’s Phone
TIP 1 – Buy your phone on as as needed basis:
Buy your kids their first phone on an “as needed basis”: I tell parents that the age when their kids should have a phone is dependent on when they “need” a phone. Just because a third grader may say to their parents, “my best friend has a phone, I should get one too”, does not mean a new phone is one the way. Peer pressure is not a valid reason to get a child their first phone. One appropriate reason is to keep in touch with your kids when they start transporting themselves to school (via bus or bike for example). But each child has different needs and different timing.
TIP 2 - Decide what type of plan (i.e. “emergency only”, voice, voice & text or voice, text and data phone):
When my kids started riding their bikes to school in 4th grade we decided to buy them inexpensive “pay by the month” phones that only had minutes for emergencies and were not for regular use. But when my twins went off to middle school this year, we agreed to get them a phone with a voice and text plan so we could communicate with them and they could communicate with their friends. A few of our friends purchased phones with a voice and text plan for their kids because they had multiple after school activities and sometimes needed a way to reach the parents where were driving.
Although our family phone plan has shared data, we do not allow them to use the data and can easily track this on the monthly bill. We can also disable data from their phones if their discipline weakens or they don’t comply. The AT&T website (our phone service) has details on disabling data on phones.
TIP 3 – Develop family phone use rules and phone etiquette standards:
The most important thing to teach your kid when you give them their first phone is phone etiquette. A cell phone can be a great communication tool or a tool that can get your kids in serious trouble (even danger). Parents should take the time to first educate themselves then create family phone rules. We started talking to our kids about cell phone etiquette a year before they had their first phone. Now we are creating rules as well as a phone “safe use” contract that they “sign” to confirm they understand. Breaking the rules means they lose use of the phone.
We checked online resources including the Common Sense Media Parents Guide to Kids and Cell Phones, Emily Post Top Ten Cell Phone Manners, Parents.com Teaching Kids Cell Phone Etiquette and more. We focused on different types of etiquette including appropriate cell phone voice and texting, cell phone etiquette do’s and don’ts (Common Sense Media), email etiquette, school rules for phones (don’t use during school!) and overall phone safety rules such as not sharing personal information or location information with anyone but family and friends (and never accept “online friends” you don’t know if real life!).
My friend Sarah Granger just wrote a book called “Digital Mystique – How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life – Online and Off”. I recommend this book as a great starting point for parents to educate themselves on the online world. She interviewed me for the book and included something I always tell parents: “Internet Safety is the New Sex Talk”. This includes cell phone etiquette because it opens kids up to a world of communication between other kids, even if it is just calling, texting, and sharing photos.
Most of all, I have written for years that the most important tool for proper cell phone use is active communication between parents and kids. We manage this communication by rewarding our kids for sharing their personal experiences and rewarding this open communication with freedom to use their phones. It has been hard at times, but we have a “discuss anything” policy and try not to be upset when they come to us – even with upsetting news. We want them to feel comfortable talking about their phone use and work with us to navigate the scary waters of cell phone use. When my oldest made a mistake or two in the past we discussed why it was wrong and how he can make sure it never happens again. We do not use apps such as “Ignore No More app” that limit cell phone use when kids ignore their parents calls because they do not treat the underlying issue: trust. Of course, each family needs to choose what works for them.
For example, the day oldest son received his first phone he attended a pool party that afternoon where he took pictures of his friends, several of whom were wearing bikinis. Some of the girls were posing in ways that could be seen as provocative and the photos were inappropriate. Luckily, our son showed us the pictures in an effort to comply with the “open communication qualification” for phone use. This gave us the chance to explain why the pictures were inappropriate and he deleted them from his phone. It was an innocent situation, which happens so often, but those are also the most dangerous because the kids don’t know that what they are doing is wrong.
We also explained that even if someone else takes a picture that could be perceived as inappropriate and sends it to him – he needs to delete it from his phone right away. If he shares a picture even that he did not take, he will still be held responsible and could even include being arrested.
TIP 4 – Choose a Phone:
I received an email about the Pantech Vybe phone around the same time I had just been to the AT&T store (my carrier) to look at possible first phone options for my twin 11 year olds. Because I had already included the Pantech Vybe on my list of phones to investigate, I decided to do a review of the phone with my twins. Here is a link to the review “First Phone For Kids: Pantech Vybe Review”.
For my kids, we did not want to get them a “smartphone” until they were older. Because they are just 11, we decided that making calls and texting was appropriate for their age (in our family). We also felt that having access to an app store was something we wanted our tweens to do at home using our WiFi only devices. For example, we set up home tablets to request a password sign-on before any app can be purchased. This allows us to review the app as a family before they download it. But even then, having access to a device with an app store can have it’s challenges. Both Google and Apple faced lawsuits over in-app purchases by kids. Beyond the cost consequences of using apps, apps that “seem” family friendly can at times lead to inappropriate features. So I always recommend parents use “family friendly” rated apps together at first.
TIP 5 – Privacy Settings and Digital Safety Toolbox:
To prepare for my kids for getting their phone, I created a list of digital safety tools and phone settings which they later helped me set on their phones. This includes location, which can be a safety issue for young kids. The tools we implemented include LoJack for Android, and Find my iPhone to track the device plus apps to track your kids (some of which are covered in this post on Tom’s Hardware “8 Apps for Tracking Your Teens”) including Life360 (family locator, messaging tool and communication app all in one).
What was the first phone you chose for your kids and what apps, settings and rules did you set up that worked or did not work?
Disclosure: This is a press post. Some items were provided to me for review purposes.