Giving your child their own smartphone is a big decision for parents to make. After all, it’s an easy way to stay in touch with them, but there are tons of risks to consider as well, like online safety. To help you make the decision for your kids, we dove in and explored the pros and cons of doing so.
For the sake of this discussion, we are defining “kid/child” as anyone under the age of 10, and “tweens” as those who are either 11 or 12. While this article focuses on advice for parents of kids, it can just as easily apply to tweens as well.
Of course, we know each family has their own rules and ideas regarding kids using technology. As such, the ideas we discuss in this article are only meant to be suggestions, and are designed to act as a jumping off point for facilitating discussions with your own kids about your family’s unique phone usage rules.
Your two phone options here are smartphones and basic (non-smart) phones. Which one you choose comes down to what types of things you want your child to have access to, cost, and your family’s personal rules when it comes to technology. Below, we’ve listed out the general features you can expect from either device type.
When thinking about basic phones, think of the phones we had in the early 2000s, like the Razr flip phones, the slide-out Sidekicks, and the iconic Nokia brick phones. These phones were great for sending texts and making texts … but that was about it.
Today, basic phones are still centered around this basic functionality but offer a few additional features like a camera, games, music, or even smart assistant integration (like Alexa). Some of these phones even have GPS capabilities, allowing you to track your child’s location.
The simple functionality of these phones is great for younger kids, as there’s nothing too complex for them to have to deal with. And many of them don’t even offer any internet connectivity, so you won’t have to worry about your child accessing costly app downloads, unsavory content online, or the perils of social media.
Odds are, you’re already familiar with smartphones and have owned several in your lifetime. But in case you’re not, simply put, smartphones are devices that can call, text, and access the internet, and they’re the phones pretty much everyone has these days.
These phones have a far more robust feature set, better hardware, and the ability to access pretty much anything you want. Through each smartphone’s app store, you can even download apps like games and streaming services, or those for productivity and communication. They even have built-in browsers that’ll let you access anything you’d be able to on a laptop or desktop computer. And with their additional functionality, they’re a better choice for older kids and tweens.
Now that we’ve defined what a basic phone is and briefly talked about what features these types of phones can have, let’s dive into the nitty gritty. Here are the pros and cons of giving your child a basic phone (rather than a smartphone):
The most notable feature of basic phones is how affordable they are. Without the top-of-the-line hardware and other fancy features, all these phones have to offer you is a way to make calls and send texts. It’s limited, but fantastic if all you want is a way to be able to contact each other in an emergency or to check-in on after school plans. Plus, because they’re so basic, these phones are super easy for younger kids to use and can even help them start to develop independence.
The majority of the devices also lack app stores and internet access. With a bare-bones basic phone, there won’t be any way for your child to rack up an expensive bill from costly apps and microtransactions, access inappropriate content online, or deal with the peer pressure and other potential perils of social media. With some basic phone options totally sidestepping these risks, you can feel safe about leaving these phones around your kids all the time—it’s simply a way for your child to contact you if they need, or vice versa, and nothing more.
As stated above, these phones are incredibly basic and limited in their functionality. If you do choose a basic phone for your older child or tween, there could be negative impacts as well. Their peers might bully them for not having a cooler phone, and the device could limit how they interact with friends (no iMessages, WhatsApp, or other popular chat apps). It could also hold older children back from certain experiences their peers are having on their smartphones.
Furthermore, and silly as it sounds, kids who use iPhones might even shun those who don’t, a phenomena known as “iMessage lock-in.” iMessage is Apple’s proprietary chat app, and all Apple users’ chats show up as blue (apparently good), while non-Apple users’ chats show up as green (apparently uncool). Oftentimes, non-iPhone users are left out. This is also something to keep in mind if you choose to get your child a smartphone.
We know what a smartphone is and have talked about the additional features and access they have compared to basic phones. Now, let’s take a moment to discuss the pros and cons of giving your child a smartphone.
Smartphones are powerful devices, flush with all kinds of cool features and apps. With them, it’s even easier to keep tabs on their whereabouts and what they’re up to. You have a variety of ways to contact them, even beyond texting or calling, and these devices have ways to show you exactly where your child is. This is great if they get lost somewhere, or if they lose their phone and you need to recover it.
With a smartphone, your child can also easily connect with their friends and classmates. Whether they’re discussing stuff for school or just chatting, smartphones make it easy to talk to anyone they want to. Through each smartphone’s app store, kids can download fun games and a variety of apps, whether for leisure or productivity. They might want to watch cool videos on sites like YouTube, listen to the latest music, or find an educational game or app that helps them do their homework and otherwise prepare assignments.
Smartphones are also a great way to help develop a sense of responsibility. Because it’s their phone, they’ll need to keep track of it and keep it charged every day. Your child can also start building a sense of independence by using a smartphone’s productivity apps, like the alarm clock, calendar, or to-do lists. Having a smartphone will make it so your kid doesn’t feel out, as most kids have smartphones these days; to some degree, it’s a peer-pressure status symbol.
Lastly, by learning to use a smartphone at a young age, your child is learning to use technology that’s central to modern day life. It’s a ubiquitous and necessary technology they’ll have to know how to navigate at some point, and is no different than them needing to learn how to type or use the internet. By learning how to interact with device interfaces and apps, they’ll be set up for success in today’s technology-driven world.
One of the most notable cons of buying a smartphone for your kid is just that … having to buy a device that costs multiple hundreds of dollars. And that’s before the added cost on your monthly phone bill, data overages and app costs, phone cases, and (heaven forbid) a replacement phone if they damage or lose theirs. At the end of the day, a smartphone is another investment and another monthly bill.
The other big issues are security and safety because these devices can access the internet. From inappropriate content online and cyberbullying or harassment on social media platforms, to corporations tracking and targeting your child with ads, and even myriad privacy concerns like stalking, smartphones open your child up to several potential hazards. If you don’t talk with your child about how to safely and responsibly use their smartphone (or the internet in general), and if you don’t set any limits or use parental control apps (which we talk about in the next section), your child is vulnerable to these issues.
Smartphones can also be distracting. Between chatting with friends, playing games, taking photos and videos, and using various other apps, it’s enough to pull your child’s focus away from school, hobbies, and even family time during dinner. There’s also the risk of becoming addicted to the device as well, if limits aren’t set on apps or device usage, and if moderation isn’t taught.
Where basic phones have limited functionality and limited access to apps and the internet, smartphones, by default don’t. This can be a point of concern for parents. Likewise, parents may also worry about how many hours a day their child spends on their smartphone and whether or not they know how to safely use it. But thanks to parental control apps and services like Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing, it’s easy to track your child’s device use and teach them how to use it responsibly.
With parental control apps (available for both Android and iOS devices), you can set up internet filters, block certain apps, get reports on daily and weekly usage. Some apps can even track where the phone is or send you a notification when your child enters or leaves a set area (like home or school), which is a handy way to keep an eye on them when you’re away at work, or even to find the phone if your child accidentally left it somewhere.
Apple’s Screen Time feature works on iOS devices and tells you how much time your child is spending online and in apps. It also lets you set limits on how many hours a device (or specific app) can be used each day, as a way to encourage downtime and discourage digital addiction. You can also have your say on which apps are always allowed (to call or text you in an emergency, for example).
Similarly, Android’s Digital Wellbeing feature has a variety of parental controls, unplugging features, balance features, and productivity features to help kids and adults alike learn how to use their smartphone responsibly and safely, without spending too much time on it each day.
It’s probably not a good idea to buy your nine-year-old the latest iPhone, because they can cost well over a thousand dollars now, but an older or more budget-friendly smartphone isn’t a bad idea at all. For $400 or less, you can get your kid or tween a respectable phone with lots of great features and powerful functionality.
Of course, you can also opt for a simpler (and far less costly) “dumb” phone; that is to say a phone that really only has basic call and text functionality. Typically, these only cost around $75-$100 a pop.
You’ll also need to consider the phone’s monthly service plan. While most smartphones typically work on any major carrier network, this isn’t always the case for basic phones. Some can be purchased with unlocked SIMs that work on a limited selection of 4G carrier bands or over Wi-Fi, but most require you to sign up for their proprietary network. These plans cost anywhere from $10-$25 per month for simple text or call-and-text plans.
As for choosing the right phone for your child, we recommend simpler non-smartphone choices for younger kids. These have fewer features as well as fewer risks. If they want to play mobile games, access app stores, or go online, this option forces them to use a family tablet or computer instead, which will likely be with your permission and supervision.
Likewise, for older kids, smartphones are often a better choice. These phones cost more and grant your child access to more features and apps, but are also a great way to build up trust and responsibility with your kid.
We’re including a variety of smartphones and basic phones here. For the smartphones, we are recommending our favorite budget picks, as they offer plenty of well-rounded functionality but at the same time won’t bust your wallet.
The GreatCall Lively Flip is a simple phone that features large backlit buttons and a display that is not a touchscreen. Dedicated arrow buttons make it a cinch to navigate the phone’s simple menus, which include Text Messages, Contacts, and Photos & Videos. It also has a dedicated Urgent Response button for emergency help 24/7 and Amazon Alexa integration. Monthly plans start at $14.99 per month and don’t require a long-term contract.
The Gabb Z2 looks exactly like a smartphone, and even has a large 5.45-inch display, along with a headphone jack, a fingerprint scanner for security, GPS location services, and both front (5MP) and rear (8MP) cameras. By default, the phone has no internet access, no games, and no social media; instead it offers access to texting and phone calls, a calendar, a camera, and apps for listening to music or watching videos you’ve uploaded or recorded using the phone. Plans start at $19.99 per month for Unlimited Talk and Text-Only Messages, but there’s a $24.99 per month plan for Unlimited Talk and Image & Group Text Messages.
For just $350, Google’s Pixel 4a is a remarkable smartphone. It’s got a best-in-class camera, solid battery life, plenty of storage, and great hardware to boot. The phone is relatively small but still boasts a 5.8-inch display, making it great for smaller hands. Of course, the Pixel 4a gives users access to Google’s suite of productivity tools, like Gmail, Duo, Messages, Calendar, and Camera, along with the Google Play Store (where you find and download apps) and Google Chrome (an internet browser). And, as we noted above, the phone gives you access to Android’s Digital Wellbeing feature for parental controls and other responsible usage features.
Alternatively, if you’re an iPhone family, we recommend snagging the Apple iPhone SE for $400. Its compact design is great for small hands, and its use of Touch ID over Face ID makes it easy for kids to use. It’s got a sizable 5.4-inch edge-to-edge display and terrific front- and rear-facing cameras, plus access to Apple’s App Store and Safari (Apple’s internet browser). Plus, with Apple’s Screen Time feature, as we discussed above, you can set time limits on app and device usage and review how your child uses their phone as needed.