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When should I buy my child a mobile phone?

It can be the cause of arguments, playground competition, and differences of opinions across families, but there really isn't a wrong or right answer to when or what you get your child as a phone. If you haven't settled on your decision yet, here's some food for thought.

There is not a mum or dad in the land who hasn’t wrestled with the ‘when and what’ questions about mobile phones (or if there is, there shouldn’t be. The issue is too important to not worry about). And there’s few parents who can say, hand-on-heart, they know they got it right.

Like so many of the journeys through the tween years, this one leads right back to your own front door. In other words, what’s right for 10-year-old Flossie is not necessarily the same for her best friend three doors down the road. Each family has to look at their own child and their own circumstances to begin to know when they should get a phone.

Research suggests that 10 is the average age to get a mobile, but what kind of phone that is, and what each individual child can do on it can still be chalk and cheese.

One friend of mine got her daughter a smart phone from a fairly young age – “better to get them used to it” – while another is insisting on holding off until the teenage years. Who’s right? Neither. They’re doing what’s right for their own family and as long as they communicate that well, and are prepared to deal with any fallout, it’s their decision to make.

Take the case of two best friends – both aged 11, both recent starters at secondary school. Each got the gift of a hand-me-down smartphone in the summer after they left primary school. One family has multi-layered controls on their daughter’s device, which tracks exactly where she is 24/7 and turns off automatically every night at 7pm on the dot. The other has no controls whatsoever because they want to instil trust and self-judgement in their already sensible tween. These are very different experiences, but again it’s impossible to judge which family has got it right.

The debate often hinges around the question of ‘Does my child need a phone now they are travelling on their own to school?’  Many parents shout an emphatic yes, while others retort that they managed perfectly well – 30 years ago – without one themselves.

That may be missing the real point. Of course kids can get the bus or walk down the street without having a phone attached to their hand, but the undeniable fact is that a time will come, all too soon, when a large chunk of that child’s social and school life moves online. If they’re not part of that conversation, they may be left behind.

Balancing that with your own child’s personality and his or her awareness of the online world is the key for many, and there is a whole world of other decisions you can make to tailor and tweak your child’s online experience. You can monitor everything your child does, should you choose, and ban or limit access to apps or sites that give your particular concerns. Or you can leave them quite literally to their own devices (although perhaps ask yourself if you’d be quite so willing to do that in the ‘real’, offline, world?)

There is a lot of advice out there which is worth reading before your child gets their own phone. Use it to help inform your decision, but match it with your own experience and intuition. And after all, nothing is set in stone - mistakes will be made and rules can be re-written.

Find out more about how to choose the right device for your child at Internet Matters

and Ofcom.

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