Your child’s ready for their first phone – are you?

Parenting Place first phone

There are a lot of unexpected ‘firsts’ to be encountered as a parent. The first time your child loses their favourite soft toy, the first time they eat a whole crayon or the first time they swear at the TV. There will be plenty of moments you just won’t be prepared for, but you can be prepared for the day when your child comes home from school and asks for their first phone. You could reply with, “Ask your other parent" or pretend you didn't hear them, or you could actually just be ready with a parenting plan that suits you and your whānau.

One day your child will inevitably say, “Sarah McFederies’ mum gave her a phone because her mum loves her. Why don’t I have a phone? Don’t you love me?” To which you will think, “Why does Mrs McFederies make my life so difficult?” And then you may think, “What do I do? I didn’t have to deal with this as a child.”

It is true that you didn’t have to deal with the implications of technology when you were a child, but you absolutely have to engage with the implications of technology as an adult. Why? Well, because technology has so many implications for your child. That's a lot of implications right there.

Sarah McFederies’ mum gave her a phone because her mum loves her. Why don’t I have a phone? Don’t you love me?

What are your options?

1. Don’t buy them a phone

You might decide that they’re still too young for a phone. They should be socialising outside and climbing trees and catching frogs and creating imaginary worlds using nothing but a brick, a toothpick and the shinbone of a cow. You want them to do that stuff without worrying about how much battery they’ve got left or which selfie they should post.

For better or for worse, young people do a significant amount of communication through devices.

Having said that, someone at your child’s school will be the first to get a phone and someone will be the last. We suggest you try to avoid either of those outcomes.

For better or for worse, young people do a significant amount of communication through devices. Gone are the good old days of organising a play date with smoke signals. And the days when you would tap out, “Hang on, I’ll just ask my mum” in morse code. Gone are the days when you would invite friends to your party via carrier pigeon. These days young people use cell phones. So for young people to be in the loop, especially in the teenage years, they will need a phone at some point.

2. Give them a second-hand phone

Once you have decided to allow your child to have their very own mobile device, the conversation isn’t over. The next topic is what type of device you will allow them to have.

Let your child experience the joys of hand-me-downs by giving them somebody’s frustratingly slow and slightly broken phone. For most kids, any phone is better than no phone. Having an old, slow phone might even teach patience, perseverance and adaptability. And with enough stickers, any phone can still look cool. Sort of.

Having said that, just because it’s an old phone, doesn’t mean that it’s the right first phone. Most adults these days have smartphones, and even if it is old and slow, smartphones are still a powerful computer capable of doing far more than you ever could on Windows 95. It may be old, it may be slow, but if they can access the internet or run apps, you may actually be giving them more freedom than they can handle for their very first device.

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3. Buy them a new smartphone

This will cost you more money than a free phone, obviously.

Our children have a deep desire to belong. Just like how in the 90s the kid with the nicest bike, smoothest chatter rings or oldest living Tamagotchi got a lot of respect from their friends, the same is true with phones today. It is common to see see groups of kids sitting around looking at the latest iPhone, and the owner of that iPhone feeling pretty chuffed about themselves.

But there are a few problems here.

1. Their self-worth

Do we really want our kids to develop a sense of self-worth and popularity based on what they own? I think most of us would much rather that they develop a sense of self-worth based on who they are. Or based on the sort of choices they are making and having some good friends who like them for who they are.

Sometimes a phone may buy popularity, but it only ever lasts until the next new phone comes out. By not giving your kids the latest and greatest phone, you are actually encouraging them to develop friendships and self-esteem that are not based on what they have, but on who they are.

2. Their connections

The second problem is that fancy smartphones give young people access to a huge amount of apps, content and people. This sort of connection is what our young people desire, but their brains are not yet capable of the risk assessment required to navigate the apps, content and people that are trying to connect to them.

Managing who your child is connected to, and what content they are exposed to, is a difficult task without a smartphone. So in our opinion the longer you can delay that level of responsibility being at the discretion of their fingers, the better.

So in our opinion the longer you can delay that level of responsibility being at the discretion of their fingers, the better.

4. Buy them a new dumb phone

We honestly think the best way to prepare your child for responsible phone ownership is to start them off with a dumb phone.

A dumb phone is a phone that doesn’t run social media apps or have as much internet access. Basically all it has is phone calls, text messages, simple games and a battery life that will outlive Grandad. It is like a cell phone with training wheels. Your child gets the connection that they want, without the risks of social media and online access that come with a smartphone.

When should I get them a phone?

Once you have decided what type of phone to get, the next question is, “When can I get a phone?” The answer to that is different for every family. We think that there are two great times to give your child the responsibility of their first phone.

1. When a significant time is being marked

One option is to give them their first phone to mark a significant birthday, or the start of a new year at school. Cell phones require a lot of responsibility, and so using that responsibility to mark a rite of passage can actually be a powerful symbol of trust between you and your child.

2. When logistics and safety call for it

The second option is to give them a phone as they become more independent and you need to stay in touch with them. Your child may be involved in sports, or walking home from school by themselves or catching a bus, or they live in a city prone to earthquakes and you don’t always know where they are. Then at that point having a phone is helpful just from a logistics and safety point of view.

Why make rules for your child’s first phone?

Bedtimes, manners, technology-free time, safety and limits are some of the things to set rules about.

Traditional wisdom would say that your children should save up and pay for the stuff that they want (while us parents cover their needs). And ultimately we want our kids to value what they own. However, if they buy their own phone it will be more difficult for you as a parent to enforce rules on that device or have control over what type of device they buy. If you choose to buy your child’s first phone then you will be in the control seat of negotiating when and how they use it.

And yes, kids with phones need some rules and boundaries. Bedtimes, manners, technology-free time, app access, safety and limits are some of the things to set rules about. You could also download and use one of these contracts with your child when negotiating the terms of their first device.

Your child will grow up in a world where their education, career and social life will require them to navigate the digital world well. The best way to equip our young people to survive in the ocean of technology is to teach them how to swim safely in the pool.

Christian Gallen

Christian Gallen

Christian has spoken to over 100,000 young people nationwide during his long career as a youth communicator and presenter. His passion is seeing young people make great choices and thrive, both online and offline.

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