When should children get their first phone

As part of the SMART Schools Study, we are completing a series of focus groups with pupils, parents, and teachers about adolescents’ uses of smartphones and social media. One of the topics often discussed are the decisions about when and why children are given their first phone. In this ‘back to school’ blog post, we discuss recent data around phone ownership and age, as well as some of the factors parents often consider when making the decision about when to provide their child their first phone.

There is wide variation in the timing of when children acquire their first phone. According to a recent Ofcom report on children in the UK, some acquire their first phones as toddlers (17% of 3-4 year olds) or young children (28% of 5 to 7 year olds), and others during adolescence (age 10 onwards), of which by age 17, 100% of adolescents have a mobile phone. This variation likely exists because the decision to buy a child’s first phone is not straightforward, and may occur after weighing up several factors for each individual child, rather than taking a one size fits all approach.

While there is variation, the Ofcom report showed that most children acquire their first phone between the ages of 9 and 11, during which phone ownership rises from 44% to 91%. According to research conducted by Internet Matters, most parents report that they would wait until their child is 10 or over before buying them their first phone. It seems likely therefore, that many children in the UK will get their first phone when they are starting or about to start the transition to secondary school (age 11-19), which is something we’ve often heard about in our research.

The start of secondary school is a pivotal point for children, as they begin developing some independence from their parents, particularly with regards to how they get to and from school. The majority (67%) of secondary school aged children get to school by walking and/or catching a bus, and the number of those accompanied by a parent significantly drops compared to primary school. Research conducted with UK parents of 9 to 12-year-olds identified that the safety and security offered by their child’s phone ownership is a key motivator for parents when buying their child’s first phone. This is also enhanced by some of the features and apps that are available on smartphones to help monitor a family member’s location, such as Life360 and Google Family Link.

This seemingly critical age for first phone acquisition, as identified by the Ofcom report, also coincides with ‘early adolescence’, a phase in which children transition from childhood to adolescence. This significant developmental stage is marked by several physical and cognitive changes, and alongside children’s growing sense of independence from their parents, is the emerging importance of peer relationships and social interactions. Parents have reported that their child’s perceived ability to develop and maintain social connections via phone ownership can be a driving factor in their decision to buy their child’s first phone. Going hand in hand with this they said that they do not want their children to be left out because they are the only one without a phone.

However, the introduction of phones and social media into a child’s life does not come without risks. Some parents are concerned about the more unfavourable aspects of smartphone ownership; the potential for over-use, cyberbullying, and access to harmful content. They may also worry about the potential for a phone to distract adolescents from their schoolwork. These ‘risks’ can put some parents off buying their child their first phone, perhaps delaying it until they are in their later adolescent years.

Some experts have suggested that instead of considering a child’s age for first phone acquisition, parents could assess their level of maturity. This may encompass assessing if they are ready to take on the responsibility for the phone, are aware of the potential risks, and understand the rules related to their phone use and why they should be followed. Early adolescents (age 10-14) themselves are also of the view that their maturity is a key aspect to consider when getting their first phone, and that achieving milestones is more important than reaching a certain age.

With these many different factors to consider, some parents have reported looking to other parents for guidance, particularly if struggling to make the judgement themselves. Parents of older children, who have already gone through the decision-making process, have been cited as a particularly useful source. However, other parents can also be a source of unsought influence, as parents in one US based study reported to experience “social and peer pressure” from other parents who had already given their children a phone.

Therefore, in addition to parents’ own attitudes and thought processes regarding buying their child’s first phone, this highlights that they can also be steered by external pressures and influences. Another such source is pressure from the child themselves, perhaps because they express that they feel left out. Ofcom highlighted that children experience blurred lines between their online and offline lives, which can lead to a child feeling left out even in ‘real-life’ conversations if they don’t have access to the same online platforms as their friends. Finally, the parents decision might also be influenced by their child’s school, particularly if they advise that pupils have a phone to use for things like homework apps or use in an educational context.

This blog highlights that the decision for parents about when to buy their child their first phone is complex, and they are unable to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach. While there isn’t a magic age for when parents should buy a phone for their child, the data suggests that many children get their phone during ‘early adolescence’, around the same time that they are transitioning to secondary school. This is largely influenced by the safety and security offered by phone ownership, children’s growing independence, and parents’ desire to ensure their children are not left out socially. When making their decision, parents might choose to look to other parents for guidance, or assess the maturity of their child, and whether they believe they are ready to own a phone.

SMART Schools Study Update

Towards the end of the 2022/2023 school year, we were very busy collecting data for the SMART Schools Study. We have now completed data collection in 27 schools, and have collected data from over 1000 pupils so far. We are looking forward to kick-starting the new school year by visiting the last few schools signed up to the study, which will complete our data collection, and allow us to get stuck into the analysis. If you would like to know more about our timely research, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us at: smartstudy@contacts.bham.ac.uk

Meet the researcher – Dr Amie Randhawa

Dr Amie Randhawa is a research fellow on the SMART Schools Study, taking place within the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

What is your academic background?

I have recently completed my PhD at Birmingham City University, which explored adolescents’ awareness and experiences of endometriosis and menstruation. Prior to this, I completed an MSc in Health Psychology, and have worked in previous research roles at the University of Birmingham and the University of Warwick, both on mental health studies.

Why are you interested in adolescent health and wellbeing?

Adolescence as it is a critical transitional life-stage, encompassing major biological, cognitive, and psychosocial development. I am particularly interested in how one negotiates this period, and any factors that might influence this, as it could have repercussions extending into their adulthood. My previous work has explored the occurrence of a chronic condition during adolescence, highlighting the importance of considering life-stage in how an illness is experienced. I am now really enjoying being part of this research into adolescents’ uses of smartphones and social media, and their well-being. These technologies are still relatively new, and are fast-moving, and it is therefore really interesting to learn how we can enhance young people’s experience with these, to ensure they can experience the benefits of them for their health and well-being.

Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself?

I love cricket!

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Watching cricket, playing with my son, and exploring Birmingham’s food scene.