Young girl smiling while holding a cell phone up to her ear.

Whether you’ve decided to take the plunge for peace of mind, or because it makes practical sense when your little guy or gal goes back to school, your kid’s first cell phone is a major milestone. OK, it might not be baby book–worthy, but it’s definitely an exciting moment for them and probably for you, too.

As with any big life event, you likely have questions. Is the price tag for kids’ cell phones really worth it? What age is a smartphone for kids appropriate? And what exactly do the experts say about screen time and protecting your child online? You may never completely stop thinking about your kid’s phone safety, but you can make the best choice for you and your family—and keep this occasion fun for everyone.

Questions to ask when buying your child’s first cell phone

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1When should kids get their first cell phone?

While most of us know we should minimize our children’s screen time on TVs, iPads, laptops and phones—especially those aged five and under[1]—what are the rules for pre-teens that crave independence?

Child experts generally agree: It’s best to delay purchasing a kids’ mobile phone for as long as possible because the constant digital connection can take a toll on young minds.[1] In fact, critical thinking skills develop into adolescence,[2] so younger kids aren’t as well-equipped to protect themselves against peer pressure or online misinformation.

If you can wait until your child is 16, that’s great, but many parents opt to get them a wireless phone long before. About half of kids have a device by the time they hit double-digits[3] because their parents want or need an easy, reliable way to stay in contact.

So, when should kids get their first cell phone? It will largely come down to what makes sense for you and your family—but anywhere between ages 10 and 16 is the norm.

According to a child expert from Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, you should keep these age guidelines in mind[3]:

  • Nine and under: Avoid cell phones and excessive screen time whenever possible. If you really need to be able to get in touch with your child, opt for a basic flip phone.
  • 10-12: Cell phones should be used for calling and texting only—no unsupervised internet or app access.
  • 13 and up: Install apps to monitor phone use and place limits on screen time and internet access.
  • All ages: Talk to your child about phone safety and responsibility, such as locking the screen, using a protective case and assessing when to answer calls.[4]

2What are the reasons my kid should have a cell phone?

  • Practicality/safety: Walking home from school, staying out with friends or calling to get a ride home from practice are all easier to manage (and typically safer) if you know your kid has a foolproof way to get in touch.
  • Mood benefits: Less than one hour of recreational screen time per day (think watching a show or texting with friends) may actually be associated with lower depression risk for adolescents when compared with no screen time at all.[5]
  • Peer friendships: Some research suggests that a digital connection can help kids make and maintain more diverse friendships than those that are solely offline.[6] The key here is keeping the screen time low and monitoring your kid’s activity.
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3How can I track my kid’s cell phone?

Location tracking apps like Google’s “Find My Device” and Apple’s “Find my iPhone” are built into most newer mobile phones. You’ll want to turn location tracking on and pick a phone that’s Wi-Fi-enabled, plus a mobile plan with LTE data so you can track location with the most accuracy.

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Safety Tip
Some parents opt for basic phone models (including non-smartphone varieties like 2000-era flip phones), so their kids can only use it to keep in touch. There is a drawback, though—these retro options likely won’t have the ability to track location—or at least not as accurately as a newer model. If tracking is important to you, pick up a smartphone and use parental controls to limit your kid’s time for surfing the web or watching videos.

4How can I limit screen time, app downloads and mature content?

Most wireless phones have built-in features to limit usage. For example, you may be able to turn off text notifications, set “downtime” periods for apps or limit what apps appear in the app store. You can also adjust settings to restrict app downloads without your permission.

Third-party parental-control apps like Google Family Link, Qustodio and FamilyTime offer another way for you to monitor your kid’s phone use. With these apps, you can set rules for your kid’s device (like blocking specific websites), get updates on usage and screen time. The apps can turn most smartphones into kid-safe mobile phones.

5What are the rules about mobile phones at school?

The exact rules about kids’ cell phones at school are determined by your school district or provincial government, so make sure to review them. Most districts allow students to carry cell phones on school property, but kids have to turn them off during class[7] to avoid distractions, cheating and harassment. It’s a good idea to review these rules with your child before getting them a mobile phone they can bring to school.

6What is mobile financing?

Once you’ve decided to get your child a phone, it’s time to choose between two purchases:

  • An unlocked phone, where you pay 100 per cent upfront and it’s not connected to a carrier
  • A carrier phone, which is locked to a specific carrier and you pay for it over time through a mobile financing plan

If you’re considering financing the phone, here’s how it works: the cost of the phone will be divided over the length of your service term. So, if the phone costs $300 and your contract is one year, your monthly bill will include the cost of your plan, plus your payment towards the phone—in this case, $25 (or $300 divided over 12 months). After your one-year term is up and your phone is paid off, your monthly bill will be only the cost of your plan. For anyone buying a smartphone for kids—which can cost over $500—financing is often the way to go.

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Money-Saving Tip
Many carriers have family plans with unlimited talk and text so you can have one bill for the whole family (and usually at a lower cost than having individual phone contracts). Check with your current service provider to see if you can add a new device to your existing plan.

7Are there any harmful effects of cell phones for kids?

Unfortunately, there’s no way around this: cell-phone use can sometimes have adverse effects that vary depending on the age of your child.

  • Infants and toddlers: There is no known benefit of screen time for kids before age two (unless you count a less-stressed parent!), and it may even affect language, memory and attention span in kids younger than five. When screen time does happen, it’s best to make sure that the content is age-appropriate, educational and that you watch it with your little ones.[1]
  • Elementary school-aged kids: Spending too much time staring at a smartphone screen (especially videos that are too mature) can negatively affect your child’s behaviour and may even trigger depressive symptoms (though the research is ongoing). Teach your kids healthy digital habits like taking screen breaks.[5]
  • Tweens and teens: For this age group, it’s less the screen time itself (although this should still be limited and monitored) and more the type of content they’re consuming that matters. While time texting, talking on the phone or using social media can be a positive part of forming identity and building friendships, it can also contribute to alienation, bullying and dependence on devices.[6]
  • For all ages: The blue light from electronic devices can keep kids from falling asleep. Set a digital curfew where all screens need to be put away an hour or two before bed to make sure kids don’t lie awake tossing and turning.[8]

To minimize the potentially harmful effects of phone use, it’s best to set rules about daily screen time, monitor their phone activity and talk to your kids—no matter their age—about the drawbacks of cell phones and social media.

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