The Big Things To Consider Before Buying Your Child Their First Phone

A phone opens kids up to a whole new world of complex peer interactions. Are you sure they’re ready?

A child looking at their cell phone in the dark.
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In a world where most families have ditched their landlines and technology is pervasive in the lives of young people, giving kids access to a cell phone can feel like a necessity. But with discussions — and sometimes panic — surrounding screen time and cell phone use constantly bombarding parents, taking that plunge can feel like parenting calculus. Even prioritizing considerations when buying a kid their first cell phone can be a challenging task.

But Katie Davis, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Washington, Director of the UW Digital Youth Lab, and mother of a 6-year-old, isn’t panicking. Davis, who has studied the impact of digital technologies on young people’s learning, development, and well-being for more than 20 years and is author of Technology’s Child, has chosen not to hunker down in a screen-free home. Instead, she focuses instead on how parents can help their kids experience digital wellness.

“Sometimes, the panic portrayed in the media is not actually reflective of what the research is saying,” Davis says. “I came to parenthood, and in the context of screens, I was very measured about it. I considered the research, but I also had the real-life experience of being a single mom with a busy job. And so I have to constantly balance many different things as I consider how screens fit into the broader context of our day, our week, and our family life.”

One of the biggest technology decisions parents face is buying their kids their first cell phone. Not only are there a myriad of available devices to choose from, but there are also a number of software options that claim to help parents monitor and control their child’s cell phone use. With so many permutations, different options will work better for different families. Davis encourages parents to be informed and thoughtful as they think through that first cell phone, but also to include their children in the conversation.

“Ideally, this is a conversation between parent and child about what sorts of controls would work best for the child and also for the parents' peace of mind,” she says.

Here, Davis gives advice on when to buy a child their first cell phone and how to deal with the world of social media and the drama of tween and teen group chats.

You write in Technology's Child that "A developmental perspective also recognizes that there's significant variation in the process of development, and as a result, there exist many paths to positive development." What are some of the variations parents should look for in their own kids as they consider buying that first smartphone?

One of the primary factors should be the dynamics of their peer groups and how they are positioned within their circle of friends. And in particular, are they especially sensitive to the kinds of peer feedback or peer influence? Because research has found that kids who are particularly sensitive or susceptible to peer influence have an increased risk that they will engage in social comparison when they're using social media. And I would even extend that to more private group chats and texting. They can be fraught with all sorts of complex peer dynamics.

It’s important to consider your child’s self-esteem, how supportive their friend group is, and the kinds of reactions that their peer interactions elicit from them.

That might sound overwhelming to parents who have multiple kids because it can feel easier to have a blanket policy for all of the kids as it pertains to when they get their first cell phone.

If you do have multiple kids that are close in age, you might need to rethink that and take cues from the child who's least ready. Then set the bar there by considering their social interactions, how deeply they internalize what their peers say about them, and how they do with other screens like television. But you’re right, it can be really hard.

It’s also important for parents to consider that screens are extra appealing for kids who have difficulty with self-regulation or have any challenges regulating their behaviors and emotions. The screen actually helps them regulate their behavior by helping them calm down and focus while using a phone or tablet. But too much of that is unhealthy because it doesn't allow them to learn to self-regulate their behaviors and emotions. And it's really hard for them to know when they should put the phone down and do something different or engage in conversation with someone.

“Research has found that kids who are particularly sensitive or susceptible to peer influence have an increased risk that they will engage in social comparison when they're using social media.”

What types of cell phone features best help kids learn digital self-control and practice digital wellness?

There was an interesting paper a couple of years ago that wasn't focused on children, but I have found in my research that it applies really well to kids. The authors identified a “Goldilocks” level of support that isn’t too restrictive or permissive, but is just right. When those tools are too restrictive, that can get really frustrating, increasing the odds that people of all ages will very quickly override and disable the controls. So complete blocking features are often not particularly useful.

But you also don't want it to be too permissive because people — including kids — generally want some support when they're feeling tempted or if they're turning absentmindedly or mindlessly to their device. The Goldilocks level of support will be slightly different for different kids again because kids are very different.

In my work, what I have found is that anything that just sort of slows you down a little bit or brings in a moment to reflect or consider what you're going to do or why you're going to do it can really help. Granted, the tech companies don't really like those tools because they don't want any friction between the user and their product.

What are some good ways to broach conversations with kids about tools that monitor screen time or location or internet activity that parents may want to use?

These conversations should start with listening to your child about what they're excited about with respect to using a phone and really listening without judgment rather than dismissing them. That also opens the door for you as the parent to share what you're excited about, what you're nervous about, and why you are introducing these tools.

One thing to avoid is approaching these tools as punishment. Any sort of surveillance technique communicates a lack of trust to the child, so you really want to be careful there because building and maintaining trust with your tween child is so important. It's so delicate.

It does force parents to be clear about their own goals in using these tools.

My perception in considering digital control tools for my kids is that all of the tools are imperfect, and most have workarounds. Is there a best tool — or a shortlist of tools — that work well for families?

Ideally this is a conversation between parent and child about what sorts of controls would work best for the child and also for the parent's peace of mind. It's a give-and-take and an opportunity to practice the renegotiation of the parent-child relationship that happens around early adolescence.

“It’s important to consider your child’s self-esteem, how supportive their friend group is, and the kinds of reactions that their peer interactions elicit from them.”

One thing that can be a challenge for parents is getting a lay of the land for what typical cell phone use looks like for kids outside of their immediate social sphere. How can parents gauge what typical cell phone use looks like among kids?

Every year, Common Sense Media puts out a helpful survey focused on media use by teens and tweens. And you know what? Not every parent lets their tween have a cell phone. As of 2021, less than half of tweens ages 8 to 12 had a smartphone.

And not every parent — even if they do give their tween a phone — gives them unrestricted access to social media. In fact, only 38% of tweens have ever used social media at all.

That seems like a sharp divergence from what people would assume.

My sense is that there's this impression that teens really want to be on social media and that they love social media. That is the thing that they want to do online. But actually, their preferred online activity is watching online videos, and that’s typically done on YouTube. Only 34% of teens say that they like social media a lot. So it's really not the case that all teens and tweens are chomping at the bit to go on social media. They may feel pressure to, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are looking forward to it or that they want to, or that they don't want support tools once they are on social media.

There’s no data to back it up yet, but it seems that the vast majority of them use social media apps in more of a one-to-one or in a small group context. Even Instagram is often used as just a way to communicate with friends and not so much for broader public-facing social media use.

If a parent does opt to let their kid get a smartphone and engage in social media, is there wisdom in limiting the number of social media platforms their kid is active on?

Again, I can't point to specific research that would say yes or no to that specific question. But I would say that, yes, limiting the number of platforms you're on will probably limit the amount of scatter in your attention.

That's not to say that very complex peer dynamics aren't going on in private group chats. Especially with tweens where there can be shifting peer alliances — where it's one day this person's out, the next day they're in — and a lot of that takes place within the context of group chats and texts. So group chats and texts, although they're more private, can be really a source of stress, especially when you add school-based interactions.

The combination of heavy online communication with then seeing the people offline in school or out of school can be a lot for tweens. So even if your kid is not on these public-facing social media sites, understand what those peer dynamics are like and if they're causing your child any stress.

While kids are good at knowing how to use connected devices, knowing how to work technology is not the same as really understanding how to navigate complex social dynamics that are often involved in network communication.

Parents, although they may not have grown up with those same exact social dynamics, do understand the complexity of interacting with people, and they have wisdom that comes with age. So just because your child is rolling their eyes at you because you can't figure out how to use Snapchat or you don't know the latest lingo, it doesn't mean that you don't have a lot of wisdom to impart and share that can really help your child navigate the challenging peer dynamics that they're they're likely to encounter.