When Should You Let Your Kids Get a Cell Phone?

It’s true what people say – kids grow up really fast. One minute they’re taking their first steps, the next minute they’re asking for a cell phone.

The decision of when to allow a child to get a cell phone comes with financial ramifications, and much, much more.

How many kids have cell phones?

According to the Pew Research Center, 78% of kids 12-17 have a cell phone of some type. Almost 40% have a smart phone. The Kaiser Family Foundation has even more detailed info, reporting that 31% of 8-10-year-olds, 69% of 11-14-year-olds, and 85% of 15-18-year-olds own a cell phone.

Deciding what’s best for your family

This is a somewhat contentious issue. Parents who let their kids get a cell phone at the young end of the age spectrum can easily feel judged by those who say it’s best to wait. So, how do you decide?

Two factors stand out.

When we need a way to get in touch. When kids get involved in more after-school activities, that may mean it’s time for a cell phone.

When they demonstrate responsibility. Cell phones can be expensive, so kids should have a proven track record of taking care of and not losing their things before being allowed to have a cell phone.

Who should own and pay for a child’s cell phone?

I believe a child should pay a portion of the cost, but not all, at least not at first. Since there are benefits to parents when their children have a cell phone, it makes sense for parents to pay a portion as well.

Parent Steven Nash was quoted in a article, describing the arrangement he and his wife worked out with their 12-year-old daughter. They purchased a phone and drew up a contract:

The phone is a spare family phone, and not my daughter’s property. The texting option is disabled. If she wants to use the phone, she has to lease it (out of her allowance) for $4 per month. If she goes over a set amount of minutes per month, she owes me 25 cents for each. If the phone is lost, stolen or broken, that is it (she had the option to pay for insurance but declined). Her mother and I retain the option to retrieve and analyze the phone at any time.

Nash’s daughter happily signed the contract. Here’s another example of a cell phone contract (pdf).

Dave Briggs, author of the highly regarded DVD-based course, Raising Financially Freed-Up Kids, agrees that parents should maintain ownership of the phone: “The kids have to use it wisely enough to prove they deserve to use ‘mom and dad’s cell phone.'”

What Restrictions Should Be In Place?

Today’s cell phones can do much more than make and receive phone calls. So, which features should a parent allow?

Texting. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 90 percent of teen cell phone users send text messages; one in three sends more than 100 text messages a day. Girls are more frequent users of all cell phone features than boys.

Three-fourths of teen cell phone users have phone plans with unlimited texting. They send and receive an average of 70 messages a day, whereas teens with limited plans send and receive an average of 10 a day.

Just 14 percent of 7th to 12th graders say their parents restrict the number of texts they can send. Teens of parents who restrict their use of texting are less likely to report regretting a text they sent, sending sexually suggestive images, or being passengers in cars where the driver texted behind the wheel.

Clearly, placing restrictions on texting makes sense.

Internet Access. I can’t think of any reason to give a child access to the Internet via a cell phone. It provides access to inappropriate content and is an unnecessary expense. Plus, with Kaiser Family Foundation research showing that kids are consuming seven and a half hours of media a day, they clearly don’t need another media portal. Kaiser also noted that kids who are heavy consumers of media earn poorer grades than those who are light users of media.

Where the phone is kept. I would not allow kids to keep a phone in their bedroom. At the end of the evening, it should be left in a public place such as the kitchen, where it can charge overnight, and where the kids know we have access to it and that we will be checking it from time to time.

So, what’s the right age?

When our oldest was just starting elementary school, my wife, Jude, and I thought we’d probably allow our kids to have a cell phone when they hit junior high school. But our oldest is now entering 7th grade and he doesn’t have a phone yet, nor is he asking for one. So, we’re holding off for now.

Here are two overarching principles we plan to follow.

First, we will use the “funnel approach” we learned about when we began the parenting journey (thank you, Keith and Cag!). The idea is that when kids are young, the funnel is tight. We make most of the decisions for them. As they get older and demonstrate good decision-making and responsibility, the funnel starts to widen. Applied to cell phones, that means when they first get one, it will come with many restrictions. As they demonstrate responsible use, they will gain more freedom.

Second, if cell phone rules and regs are the starting point of conversations about the dangers of porn, online predators, cyber-bullying, and similar things, we have failed in our role as parents. The responsible use of a cell phone should just be one new manifestation of their understanding of such issues that we have had many conversations about. We need to be well out ahead on these topics.

I’d love to hear from other parents. What’s the right age for a kid to have his or her own cell phone and why? Who should pay? What restrictions are warranted? And what phones and service providers do you recommend?

I am very excited about the launch of my brand new Money. Purpose. Joy. small group resource. To watch the first session and order, click here.


4 Responses to When Should You Let Your Kids Get a Cell Phone?

  1. Deborah Rasa July 25, 2016 at 11:26 PM #

    We just got a phone for my 12 year old son. It’s a “dumb” phone that looks a little like a smart phone, so he likes it. However, we’ve turned off the limited internet capability that it came with so that he can only talk & text on it. He pays the $5 a month that it costs on our plan. There is really no reason that he NEEDS a phone. We let him get it as much for our convenience as anything else. For example, this week, each day he is gone all day doing local missions with his youth group. Tonight, I went to the wrong location to pick him up & got a text from him saying “Where are you?” I called him to find out where the group was. Of course, I could have called the youth leader in that instance, too. But there have been other times recently that I have dropped him off somewhere & though he was with trusted adults, I wished I had a way to get in touch with him directly. But it’s definitely not the necessity some parents make it out to be.

    • Matt Bell July 31, 2016 at 6:20 AM #

      Thanks for your feedback, Deborah. I’d be interested in knowing what specific phone you got for him.

  2. Matt Bell July 20, 2016 at 9:49 PM #

    Paul – Someday our kids will be tell theirs cell phone-related stories similar to the “When I was a kid, I had to walk to school uphill—both ways” stories.

    Seriously, though, the cost isn’t even the biggest factor for me. Before they get their own phone, I want to make sure our kids are well grounded in the issues that have the potential to be magnified by having such portable technology.

  3. Paul D July 20, 2016 at 12:24 PM #

    My oldest did not get a cell phone until she was 19 for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that she didn’t need it. She was homeschooled in high school, and went to a couple classes at a nearby school, and when she did, she took my wife’s very basic cell phone with her only for emergencies. After graduating from high school she worked full time for a year, and again she carried my wife’s phone. Finally when she was leaving home to go to college she got a phone, and it is one from Republic Wireless that costs $10 a month (no data usage unless she’s on wifi). My other daughter is 13, she is not homeschooled, and she does not have a phone. There just isn’t any real need for her to have one, and I’ve told my kids the less money I spend on unnecessary things, the more for their college funds. My 13 year-old tells me that out of 30 kids in her school class, there are just 3 of them that don’t have a phone. I cringe to think of all the people paying so much money for phones for every member of the family just because they think it’s necessary. One more reason Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

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