“Mum, I’m ready!” When should you get your child their first smartphone?

Next story

Before children get their first smartphone, they should already be familiar with the online world and smart devices. When should parents start educating them on the topic?

 They can introduce the basics quite early. Even small babies are already in contact with technology. They may, for instance, join us during video calls or watch fairy tales on our phones. Then, around the age of 3 or 4, children become interested in smart devices, but they mostly see them as interesting toys. At that age, we can slowly start explaining to them how smartphones work and how we use them.

 Isn’t that too early for them to understand?

 Not when we teach them by example. When we speak to children about technology, our words should not be abstract, separated from reality. Plainly said, the best practice is to explain technologies while using them in front of and with our children. We can show them, for instance, that when we push a button, we can use the device to communicate with other family members, even those who are far away from us. This is the same as when we show them how to navigate an elevator by letting them push the button with us. So too with preschoolers and young grade schoolers, we can download apps and explore them together. It can also be useful to look for educational materials, videos or games to make learning more interactive and fun.

 What should children know before they get their first smartphone?

 There are many issues to discuss. Children should know how to use technology in the context of the world offline. For example, they should understand that they should not stare at their phone when crossing the street or talking to someone. They should also get the basics of security, such as not accepting calls from unknown numbers or clicking on links in random emails or messages. They need to know that they can adjust the settings on their device to be more secure. And more. To help them learn these things, we need to give them time and teach them one step at a time. We cannot expect them to absorb all the necessary information at once. It's like learning a new language – we cannot begin with the advanced textbook but must first work through the lessons for beginners.

“Before parents get their child a smartphone, they should ask themselves: ‘Is my kid mature enough to benefit from all the possibilities smartphones offer?’ If the child only uses the smartphone as a toy, the answer is no.”

When introducing children to smart technologies, should parents start with smartphones? Or are there other devices that are more beginner-friendly?

I think a tablet is the best device to start with. Why? As I said, young children are mainly interested in smart technologies as toys. Tablets are bigger, which makes it easier for kids to use and play games on. Moreover, a tablet can be shared among several people or even a whole family, so your child can start learning to use technology without handling your device. With kids at primary school age, we may sometimes invite them to use our smartphones together with us. This way, they will get familiar with the processes and rules of secure device usage. But that still does not mean they are ready for their own smartphone, of course. If you want to give your child a device that will help them stay in touch with you – perhaps when they first begin school – I recommend starting with an old-fashioned phone with a keypad. This can be your child’s first phone to take care of. This way, kids can learn to handle their devices responsibly and use them for safe communication before they deal with other features such as social media.

The main question is: When are children ready for a smartphone?

I would say by the age of 10, or maybe even a bit sooner. But this “age threshold” is getting lower with time. I used to encourage parents not to give their kids a smartphone before the age of 11. But I have always suggested, and still do, that parents should let their kids wait a little for their first smartphone. Perhaps a few months or a year after they first ask for one.

Why wait?

Waiting is healthy for children; it helps them manage their needs and desires. But ideally, parents should not just fend off their kids by saying, “No, I won’t get you a smartphone; maybe later.” We can let children know what needs to happen before they get the phone. We can say, for example: “You’ll get your own smartphone in a year. Before that, let’s spend some time together exploring the digital world and learning how to use one responsibly.”

Besides age, what other aspects should parents consider?

Before a child gets their first smartphone, it is essential that their understanding of the world has progressed from concrete to abstract. This usually happens around the age of 10 or 11. A child of 7 is naturally trusting of the world and can be very easily manipulated. They still find it difficult to think critically, understand abstract concepts, or know that their actions have consequences. They don’t get that some people online may fake their identity or want to harm them. It would be irresponsible to let them use a smartphone independently at this age.

What if parents believe their child is extraordinarily talented?

Even extremely smart children remain “concrete thinkers” when they are little. The process of cognitive development is gradual and does not skip any stages – even in the case of gifted children. They may be able to communicate well, explain their thoughts perfectly, or even handle technologies with skill by the age of 7, but that does not mean they are capable of abstract and truly critical thinking.

“If we introduce a smartphone to children at the right time, the device will be an addition to their life – not a distraction from it.”

Are there any other skills parents should assess?

They should also pay attention to their child’s ability to socialise. At a young age, children need to learn how to play and talk with others and how to create bonds. Introducing smart devices before they learn to do this may distract them from developing these necessary skills. Even if the phone is placed in their pocket or a bag, the child may be too obsessed with it, and so they become unable to focus on face-to-face interactions, and the beauty as well as the challenges of the offline world. This can be a big problem. It is essential for kids to be able to make friends – for many reasons. One of which is that when they have stable relationships, they are less likely to develop an unhealthy bond with the online world or suffer from internet addiction.

Some parents advocate a "no technology" approach and try to isolate their children from smart technology for as long as possible. What do you think about this?

It’s not practical; children will encounter the technology eventually, whether at school, through their friends, or elsewhere. We cannot isolate them from technology. What we can do is prepare them to access digital possibilities securely. If we choose the “no technology” path, it’s like letting them drive a car without ever having given them driving lessons. In fact, a sufficient education is an essential milestone in determining whether a child is ready for their first smartphone. Did we prepare the child well? Are they familiar with the benefits and risks of using a smartphone? And do they know how to eliminate or at least lower the risk social media presents? If not, maybe we should take a bit more time to discuss these issues before letting our children use a smartphone independently.

You mentioned benefits and risks. What are some of the main benefits of getting a child their smartphone?

Smartphones can be useful in many ways. They allow children to communicate with friends and explore hobbies. Smart devices are especially beneficial when they are used actively rather than passively. What I mean is that instead of just endlessly scrolling through social media, children can use their devices to create something of their own. For example, they can make creative pictures or videos. Finally, since having a smartphone enables children to find information independently or create their own content, it can also help them develop their self-reliance and confidence.

And what about the risks?

The online world is, in many ways, like the offline one. Yes, there are dangers. Some parts are not nice and we would rather not see them, and there are some people who want to hurt others. But there is also a wealth of opportunities and a great deal of beauty. We should not separate children from technology, just as we should not lock them down at home to protect them from what happens outside. Rather, parents should gradually introduce their children to the world – offline as well as on – walking alongside them and letting them know that they are always there to help.

Protect your children online with confidence. Explore our Parental Control app and ensure your child’s safety as they begin their journey in the world online.

About ESET

For 30 years, ESET® has been developing industry-leading IT security software and services for businesses and consumers worldwide. With solutions ranging from endpoint and mobile security, to encryption and two-factor authentication, ESET’s high-performing, easy-to-use products give consumers and businesses the peace of mind to enjoy the full potential of their technology. ESET unobtrusively protects and monitors 24/7, updating defenses in real-time to keep users safe and businesses running without interruption. Evolving threats require an evolving IT security company. Backed by R&D centers worldwide, ESET becomes the first IT security company to earn 100 Virus Bulletin VB100 awards, identifying every single “in-the-wild” malware without interruption since 2003. For more information visit www.eset.com or follow us on  FacebookYouTube and Twitter.