Is My Child Ready for A Phone?
As internet media safety experts, advocates, and coaches who present to thousands of parents throughout Canada and the United States, one question we are usually confronted with is, “What age do you think a child should be gifted a cell phone.” This is especially true during the Christmas season when youth are hoping for a phone under the tree, or in their stocking. We believe this question, although well-meaning in nature, really misses the point because it’s not about the age of a child, rather it’s about their social and emotional maturity and impulse control that allows them the ability to own and operate a phone without direct parental supervision? If the answer to this question is no, then it doesn’t matter if the child is 6 years old or 16, they should not be receiving a phone this Christmas season. This is especially true if they struggle with conflict, have poor impulse control, and can not honour boundaries.
Remember in many places to purchase a cellphone data plan you need to be 18 years old unless a parent or adult signs a cell provider’s Terms of Service (contract). Parents, by signing the Term of Service for your child, you legally own the phone; not your child. Again, cellphones are not a right to have, they are a privilege to have when it comes to children, tweens, and teens. When we gift our kids a cellphone this Christmas season, it needs to be made clear that we legally own the phone and are just lending it to them with conditions attached. It is important that parents remove the sense of entitlement that many youths have specific to a gifted cellphone, or other digital devices they may receive.
Although we have personally seen children in grade one with smartphones, which is ridiculous in our opinion except in exigent circumstances such as a medical necessity (diabetes type 1), according to the marketing agency, Influence Central, the average age of youth owning their first cell phone in Canada is 10 years. According to the Canadian digital literacy group MediaSmarts, 24% of students in the fourth grade own their own phones and 85% of students in the 11th grade. It has been our experience that a child’s first cell phone is often not a new device, but rather a hand-me-down phone from a parent, who has upgraded to a new smartphone. We also believe it is important to know that our kids aren’t using their phones just like phones. Here’s a breakdown of what our kids are doing with their phones: Texting 88%, Instant messaging 79%, Accessing Social Media 72%, Emailing 64%, Video Chatting 59%, Video Gaming 52%, Messaging Apps 42%
When you as the parent decide that your child is ready for a phone as a gift, it is very important that you put in place clear expectations as to how the phone will be used in and outside of the home. To help, we have created something we call the Family Collective Agreement (1). This should be printed and placed in a Christmas card that accompanies the gifted phone.
One of the prime directives in the Collective Agreement – the phone will not be used privately in a bedroom or bathroom. Setting usage goalposts early is extremely important, our Family Collective Agreement is a good way to start talking about digital expectations, the goalposts, with a gifted phone.
When first learning how to ride a bike, do we buy our children the best and most expensive bike on the market? NO – we purchase a cheap bike with training wheels. Why, because we expect that during the learning process, they are going to drop the bike and have some minor accidents along the way, resulting in the bike becoming scraped and banged up.
The same analogy applies to a cellphone. Cellphone providers purposely make this a challenge by offering the newest iPhone or Android phone for free. The catch, you need to sign up for a two-year contract. This is not something we recommend parents do for a child’s first phone, especially for those under the age of 16yrs.
When we ask parents why they would want their grade 3, 4, or 5 children to own a smartphone, the number one answer we hear is, “in an Emergency, they can call me or I can immediately call them.” If this is the main reason, then don’t buy them a smartphone, buy them a basic cell phone that can call, text and take/send pictures. A model that we recommend to parents as a child’s first cell phone is the Nokia 3310 3g ($78.00 CDN) (2). Another great option out of Australia, that can be used here in Canada by carriers that use what is called a GSM network, is the KISA phone ($234.00 CDN) (3).
As your child starts to show good judgement, and consistent social and emotional maturity with their basic cellphone, you can now upgrade them to a basic smartphone. I other words, the digital training wheels that a basic cellphone such as the Nokia 3310 provides, can now be removed. We always recommend a basic Android as their first smartphone over an iPhone because of their price – Android phones are usually much cheaper and have a greater ability to place third party parental monitoring apps on the phone, which the iPhone is limited (something we will speak to later in this article). Once your child does show you good judgement, consistent social and emotional maturity, and good digital literacy, then they are ready to move into a higher-end Android smartphone or iPhone.
Parents need to understand that much like a laptop or desktop computer, smartphones are the keys to the digital highway, that allow your child to have access to the Internet, both the good and the bad. Given this fact, we also believe that we should also provide our kids with digital seat belts, or parental monitoring/filtering software solutions. Our kids have no right to privacy from us as parents! Having said this, our kids can earn their right to privacy by showing us parents’ good consistent digital citizenship over time. Once our kids can do this, then it’s recommended that monitoring software be removed because your child has earned that right. We also recommend that parents DO NOT use monitoring/filtering software covertly or in isolation. If a parent is going to install monitoring/filtering software, let the child know. Also, explain to the child that they can earn the right to have this software removed but you also have the right to place it back on their phone if they breach any clause in the Family Collective Agreement. Both the Android and iPhone also have their own native parental controls that should be turned on as well. (4, 5).
Remember, hardware and software are not replacements for good parenting. It is all about parental participation, education, and supervision with our kids, combined with hardware and software solutions where appropriate and reasonable to do so. We need to be our child’s best parent and not their best friend when it comes to keeping our kids emotionally, psychologically, and physically safer, especially at younger ages, in how they are accessing the digital world until such time as they are mature enough to go it alone.
So what Kind of “Smarter” Phone Is the Best First Phone:
If you are looking for a “smarter” cellphone, rather than the basic Nokia 3310 3g or the KISA phone that we mentioned earlier in this article, we have some ideas for you. Many of the popular smartphones on the market today are very costly and often technologically overpowered—especially when it comes to a teen’s first phone. We decided to look for an entry-level, non-flip, “smarter” cellphone that we could recommend to parents who are considering gifting a phone to their child. We get it, sometimes a basic cell phone can have a negative stigma attached that can create a situation where the child could be targeted by their peers and made fun of. This is why we wanted any “smarter” phone that we would recommend to have the following specifications:
#1: We wanted a reliable phone that is under $100.00. Given how these phones get treated by many first-time teen users, the likelihood of breakage or the accidental loss of the phone is a real possibility. So, we wanted to find a phone that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to purchase or replace if needed. We also recommend that you stay away from purchasing a used phone online, just too many potential problems unless you are a techie and know how to digitally wipe the phone. If you are still considering buying a used phone online, ensure that you check what is known as its IMEI number before the purchase to ensure that it is not a stolen phone (6).
#2: Although we love iPhones, they are expensive and very restrictive when it comes to adding a third-party parental monitoring and filtering option. This is why we are now recommending an Android phone as a teen’s first device, given that their operating system, unlike the iPhone, allows for third-party installations. Once your child shows responsible digital citizenship and stewardship of the phone itself, then consideration can be given to their next phone being a more premium Android or even an iPhone instead.
#3: We didn’t want the purchase of the phone to come with an expensive 2-year contract that a parent would be locked into. We looked for a phone that had no carrier commitments and no contracts. We wanted to find a reasonably-priced, month-to-month, pay-as-you-go option given that these types of plans offer the most flexibility for parents.
#4: We wanted a phone plan that also offered free voicemail, free caller ID, free call waiting, and free incoming text messages.
#5: We wanted to find a phone plan that was flexible and offered several specific options such as:
- phone only
- phone and text-only
- and lastly, phone, text, and data combined.
Again, we wanted a plan that offers the ability to fit the needs of a specific child and their family.
#6: We wanted to identify an Android phone and operating system that supports the parental monitoring and filtering software that we will be recommending in this article.
The entry-level phone that meets the above-noted specifications that we are recommending as a young teen’s first smartphone is the MAXWest Nitro4X, which is presently being sold online, or in-store, if available, by 7-11 Canada (7) or London Drugs for $75.00 CAD (8). For those readers who are from the United States, we would recommend the GABB Z2 (9) At the time of writing this article, the GABB Z2 phone is not yet available in Canada.
There are a variety of pay-as-you-go monthly plans through “Speak Out Canada,” a cellular carrier that has partnered with 7-11 and uses the Rogers cellular network (10). We recommend starting with the 200 Canada-wide minute plan, which includes unlimited texting, for just $20.00.
As your child progresses and shows greater responsibility with the phone, you can then add on a further 100MB data plan for $10.00, or even a premium month-to-month, pay-as-you-go plan (11). However, it’s our recommendation that before you give them too much cellular data, you start with the $20.00 plan first, then (if needed) add on the $10.00 data plan second, and then consider the smartphone plans as the last step once they show good digital citizenship with their phone. We believe that incremental steps are always an ideal way to teach youth responsibility with their first phone. Remember, even without a data plan, your child will still be able to access the internet for free via Wi-Fi at home, school or any other open Wi-Fi source.
Once you have purchased the phone and have decided on the appropriate month-to-month, pay-as-you-go plan, you will also have to purchase a SIM card for $10.00. Don’t forget to “port protect” the phone which is a free service provided by most cellular providers, but you need to request this be turned on (12).
A 200-minute plan with unlimited texting in Canada (no data) and a sim card means the total cost for the phone (without the Top Up option) will be approximately $110, plus all applicable taxes. This is a FANTASTIC DEAL!
Again, this is an entry-level smartphone that does not have the same quality, power, responsiveness, or features as a premium smartphone. We want you to think of this phone as “tech training wheels” that a pre-teen/early teen will have to learn how to master and respect first, before upgrading to a more expensive and more powerful phone.
A challenge that we identified with the Speak Out Canada cellular carrier is that it piggybacks onto the Rogers cellular network. What this means is that if there is no Rogers network in your area, then you will not have any coverage. Also, this phone and the Speak-Up phone plan is not available in the Yukon, North West Territories, and Nunavut (13).
Now that your child has a fully functioning, “smarter” phone, we also think you should consider the following three recommendations:
Given that the Android platform allows parents to add third-party parental monitoring and filtering software, we recommend that you now also consider downloading the Boomerang App onto their phone once you click on the provided link, choose “Purchase Boomerang” to purchase and download it onto your child’s new phone (14).
We also recommend, based upon financial ability, to further layer parental oversight by considering the installation of the Gryphon Router in your home and their mobile Homebound app be placed onto their phone (15).
To provide those under the age of 13 with a safer online experience where they can learn how to text, message, and share pictures with other family members, and even friends, we recommend that you also consider downloading a messaging app called Kinzoo (16). We have worked with Kinzoo, a Canadian-based company, and their family messaging app was built with privacy and security as its foundation. They do not sell any personal information about its users to any third parties.
The last step is to download and implement our free “White Hatter Family Collective Agreement” (17). This document clearly outlines acceptable and unacceptable use of digital devices, both inside and outside the home. Once read and signed by all family members, this document should be posted in a public place in the home for all to see as a constant reminder.
We here at The White Hatter believe that if you are not considering a basic cellphone, like the Nokia 3310 3g, the MAxWest Nitro4X from 7-11, combined with the Speak-Up Canada month-to-month, pay-as-you-go plan, is a sound, entry-level smartphone that is not going to cost you a fortune.
Taking A Phone Away as Punishment: A Suggestion
In today’s onlife world, a phone has become the third appendage to our kids, and taking away a phone for bad behaviour is like the amputation of that third appendage. We are not saying that taking a phone from your child is not an option, it is. What we are saying – choose your battles carefully and don’t treat every situation like a nail and hit it with a hammer. The hammer is taking the phone.
If your child was using their phone in a low-level mischievous way, and you take their phone as punishment, what do you think will happen when they are really in trouble online and need help. Do you think they will come and tell you? Probably not because they are likely fearful that you will over-react and take their phone. Instead, think about an escalating scale that could include:
- first offence – verbal warning.
- Second offence – multiple chores around the home for the next week.
- Third offence – chores + take their power chord. Now they have to watch the battery quickly drain on their phone without the ability to re-charge. This will drive them crazy!
- Forth Offence – chores + take the phone, remove the sim card and replace it with a cheap flip phone which you give them to use for a week.
- Fifth offence – chores + no phone.
Again, in exigent circumstances, the taking of a phone is likely warranted. However, if not an exigent circumstance, think about the above noted escalating consequence to action approach. You may also want to add this scale of consequences to actions to the Family Collective Agreement, thus making it crystal clear what will happen if your child is not being a good digital citizen with their phone.
We hope this article has been of benefit to those parents who are considering a cellphone as a gift this holiday season.
Digital Food for Thought
The White Hatter