Is My Child Ready for a Smartphone?

February 23, 2024

“Pleeeeeeease can I have a phone?” 

Ownership of a smartphone is one of the biggest rites of passage for today’s youth. For most families today, the question of introducing a smartphone has become less about “if” to introduce a smartphone and more about “when” and “how” to do so.  Parents and caregivers worry, appropriately, about opening up the unchecked world of social media and internet content to their child.  

Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development convened a panel of media experts, child safety advocates, parenting coaches, and communications researchers to help families answer essential questions around how to determine child and family readiness for smartphone introduction. 

Here are their tips to help determine what timing might be right for your family.

Consider introducing a “less smart” device first:

The prevalence of smartphones may lead some parents to believe that their child should go straight from no device to a smartphone.  In fact, experts caution against this all-or-nothing approach and instead suggest introducing an intermediate device like a smart watch, which can offer the child the ability to make a call, text, and in some cases take a photograph but are not open to the Web and do not allow the download of social media apps. “Dumb phones” without internet access or with controls to limit app downloads are also good alternatives. 

Beware the “pass back smartphone”:

Sometimes, a parent may need an upgraded phone and then the child gains access to the older model, referred to as the ‘pass-back iPhone.’ However, more often than not, the devices lack appropriate parental controls.

Look for developmental signs of readiness in your child:

Demonstrations of responsibility, such as a child who is taking buses, has sibling care responsibilities after school, or is getting paid to babysit other kids all indicate possible readiness or even need for a smartphone, especially if the child doesn’t have access to a landline for emergency use when home alone. In addition, children who demonstrate emotional regulation in social situations may be able to handle the increased access that a smartphone allows. For example, when children are able to calmly and responsibly discuss rules around smartphone ownership and its use without emotional outbursts– that is a good indication that a child might be ready. 

Work as a community to set standards:

Some schools or communities create a social contract of sorts with other parents and consider limitations as a group on how and when children should get a smartphone or a social media account. This helps parents feel less isolated and provides ‘backup.’ 

Special considerations for neurodivergent children:

Experts suggest keeping the unique needs of neurodivergent children in mind when considering when and what type of smart device to introduce. How neurodivergent children use devices can vary significantly depending on a variety of factors including existing co-occurring conditions, such as whether or not they rely on speech alone to communicate or if they also have an intellectual disability. 

When deciding when to introduce a smartphone, families should consider factors such as safety needs, sensory sensitivities, accessibility opportunities, agency, privacy settings, and digital literacy.

Finally, it is important to remember the challenges around neurodivergent children and device use are not limited to the specific biological and neurological situation of the individual child, but also the physical and social environment that can itself be disabling or challenging for these youth. 

Consider the needs of your unique child and family

Experts agree that every family is unique and exactly when to introduce a smartphone is not a one-size-fits all approach.  Individual children may have unique use cases or considerations, such as kids who are separated from their parents for various reasons, kids with divorced or separated parents, or kids whose parents work in another country. 

This post is based on the parenting tip sheet Smartphones: Assessing Readiness, Part I of a three part series on smartphone introduction. Smartphones: Preparing for Healthy Use, and After the Smartphone: What Now? are also available.

Written by

Jill Braunstein

Jill Braunstein is Director of Marketing and Communications at Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. She is responsible for planning and executing marketing strategy, overseeing a wide variety of written and visual content, public presentations, messaging campaigns, internal and external communications, and building partnerships to advance the work of the Institute.

A skilled and seasoned communicator, Jill brings more than 30 years of non-profit strategic communications to her work. Prior to joining Children and Screens, she served as the inaugural Director of Communications at the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), an international membership organization that promotes the use of developmental research to improve human lives. Prior to joining SRCD, she was Director of Communications at the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), a nonpartisan organization made up of the nation’s leading experts dedicated to working across political and ideological lines to advance understanding of programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance. Jill also spent seven years with the prestigious Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) on their research and communications teams.  Jill earned an MA in Public Policy and Women’s Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism with a concentration in Speech Communication, both from the George Washington University.