A smart guide to your child’s first smartphone

What you need to know about giving your child their first phone

14 June 2019
6 minute read

Young girl laying down playing on cellphone

Children are getting phones as early as 9 or 10. So when is it the right time to get your child that first phone and what do you need to know before you take that step? If you’re hearing, “But Mom, everyone else is getting one…”, read on.

What’s the right age to get a phone?A new survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of smart home technology brand Alarm.com asked 2000 moms that question, and their answer was 12 years old. But it’s not uncommon for children as young as 10 to have smartphones.

There’s no hard and fast age at which a child is old enough to manage a phone. A lot depends on the child, their maturity level and their ability to follow the rules that you and the school have around phones. What is certainly true, though, is that the phone ownership is increasingly common, increasingly young.

There’s pushback against the trend of giving kids access to phones at an ever-earlier age. In America, the Wait Until 8th campaign is gathering steam, urging parents to pledge to not giving kids smartphones until 8th Grade. Silicon Valley technology executives - that’s the big shots at Google, Apple and the like - are apparently delaying giving their own children smartphones, because they know the downsides. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has said in interviews that he’s strict with his kids when it comes to access to and use of technology.

Why do they need it?If a child is with a responsible adult at home or at school most of the day, there isn’t a real need for a phone. Once the child is more independent, there are distinct and obvious advantages to being able to get in touch with your child, and for them to be able to reach you or another trusted adult. Perhaps a change of schedule means an earlier pick up time, or they need an essential item picked up from the shops on your travels. Many parents feel that there’s an important safety benefit - if the taxi has broken down, or the lift hasn’t arrived, or the child feels unsafe in one way or another, the child can get in touch with them. The flipside is that a phone can make a child a target for thieves, especially if they walk to school or take public transport.

What are the risks?Cellphones are part of our children’s lives, there’s no getting away from it. One of the good arguments for waiting a bit longer before getting your child a phone, is that you delay exposure to the negative effects like:

Less play - the temptation of games and social media is hard to resist, and kids often turn away from previously loved activities like real life games, reading and creative, free play in favour of the phone.

Addiction - even as adults we struggle with the allure or social media. Kids are even more vulnerable.

Distraction - there are plenty of studies that purport to show that access to phones is not good for concentration or for academic success.

Depression - the always-on nature of the media and the constant social pressure can be really hard to handle.

Cyber bullying - with access to social media comes vulnerability to bullying and trolling.

Poor quantity and quality of sleep - kids stay on their phones past sleep time or get up to check for messages.

Pornography - it is very easy to find either by mistake or on purpose and can be very disturbing for children.

What should you get?There’s a good argument to be made for giving your child a not-so-smart phone to start with. A basic phone will let them phone or text you if necessary, and you them, but won’t give them access to the Internet. It’s safer, in terms of what they can see and do online, and far less distracting. You can see how sensible they are about using and looking after the phone, before giving them something more powerful. These basic phones are cheap - you can pick one up for a couple of hundred rand - so the risk of loss or theft is less, too.

There’s a good argument to be made for giving your child a not-so-smart phone to start with

Limiting data and airtime availability restricts the amount of time your child can spend on the phone and has the added benefit of teaching your child to manage their budget. If you do decide on a smartphone, consider going without a data contract to start with. Your child will be able to use wifi in certain places - perhaps at home, at school, or in the library - but won’t have endless unsupervised access to the internet and all its delights and dangers 24/7.

Parental controlsThere are ways to control your child’s access to inappropriate content, either through the phone itself, or through the service provider, or through specialised apps and software.

Vodacom offers a free parental control service to subscribers. To activate the free parental control service on MTN, dial *101# and follow the prompts.

Be aware that parental controls don’t give perfect protection, and besides, your child will have access to content on other kids’ phones. So, you still need to have the ongoing conversation around appropriate and safe behaviour.

School policyMost schools have a policy around cell phones. In primary school, particularly, they generally restrict access to phones during school hours. It’s much easier for parents to limit cell phone use if the school rule book is fairly strict in this regard. Find out what your school’s policy is and make sure your child knows what the rules are and agrees to follow them. If the policy is non-existent or seems weak, it might be worth speaking to the school about how they and parents can work together to manage phone use better.

Before you say yes…The time to talk rules is before you say yes to the phone, not after! Make your rules a condition, not an afterthought. Once that sparkly new trinket arrives, you’ve lost their attention already.

Author and social media law expert Emma Sadleir makes the point that owning a cellphone is a privilege, not a constitutional right. Parents who are providing and paying for the phone have the right to lay down ground rules as to how and when it may be used. Her company, The Digital Law Co, has compiled an excellent smartphone contract for teenagers which is free for download. It’s a really helpful resource that covers all the areas you’d want kids to be aware of, from online safety to phone etiquette.

Keep talkingOnce your child has that exciting new phone, your job is not over. As they go through different stages, they will be exposed to new aspects of the technology, apps and social media, which will need to be navigated by them and by you. Keep yourself informed about trends in social media and keep having the conversations about phones and media use. Use news stories that involve cellphones to spark discussions round the dinner table. Don’t make it all doom and danger, don’t forget to ask what games they are their friends are using and why they like them, or what social media platforms are gaining in popularity. The bottom line is, cellphones are inevitable. If it’s not this year, it’ll be next year. It’s up to us parents to help our children use them wisely.

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