The mobile phone dilemma - when is the best time for children to own a smartphone?

It wasn't so long ago the most vital parental decisions involved only matters like sleepovers and use of the family car.

Now it's what age to give your child a mobile phone.

There's little help from legislators. It's illegal to drive a car before the age of 15, but there is no legal age or guidelines about when a child can own a cell phone or a smartphone - for many children an exciting milestone giving them a taste of independence.

It is often back-to-school time – particularly when kids start intermediate school – that spurs parents into providing a phone for their son or daughter. Many view the prospect of a child walking or biking to school for the first time with some nervousness – or they may be latch-key kids, or those who need to get to a friend's place or a sibling's school to be picked up.


A mobile phone gives kids the ability to call their parents in a crisis – a boon for the adults, comforting knowledge they are still connected to their child even if are far away.

At that age – 10 or 11 – most New Zealand kids are still firmly under parental control. But a phone brings them a step closer to well-publicised issues like cyber-bullying and sexting.

In 2016, a US survey conducted by Influence Central maintained the average age for US kids to have their first smartphone was 10.3 years. It revealed 39 per cent had a social media account at 11.4 years, 11 per cent when younger than 10. According to internet safety experts, some smartphone ownership starts as young as 7, with many families putting in place rules surrounding smartphone use.

Auckland mum Bridget Sykes wrestled with the question with both daughters, Amelie, 13, and 11-year-old Lucia. She received her first phone last Christmas, ahead of starting intermediate school.

"It wasn't really that she was starting a new school," says Sykes. "She was asking for it and wanted to be able to text her friends. I felt really comfortable with that.
"I am of the mind that for children to grow up feeling confident enough to make the most of opportunities – and a mobile phone is a fantastic tool and opportunity – they need to be exposed to these things, learn how to manage them and know about the pitfalls.

"Having said that, I know there are risks that come with young ones and phones. We have general rules at home and their schools also have contracts with them – but we simply say that screen time happens after dinner. During school holidays, they can have an extra two hours screen time."

Vodafone have addressed the whole gamut of children and mobile phone issues with their Digi-parenting website ( It has a huge range of parental advice and techniques.

They have also launched a product aimed specifically at first-timers. Called My First Phone, it is a combination of a range of smartphones and Red Share plans designed to make it easier for parents to select and manage their child's first mobile.

Vodafone's Head of Segment Marketing, Delina Shields, says the company recognised quickly the dilemma for parents when it came to first phones: "You can tell people are thinking hard about these issues when you see Google, for example, revealing that online searches by parents seeking information on "limit screen time" have quadrupled in the last five years.

"That tells you that the amount of usage is a trending topic for parents. I think some are worried the first phone is a slippery slope – with the child descending into a mobile phone world from which parents are excluded.

"But the phone is also such a powerful tool for staying in touch and even opening dialogue between parents and kids when it comes to limits, rules and independence."
Shields says there are no rules about what age is right for a first phone – as no two children are the same and maturity levels differ even among identical age groups.

"There are some simple measures which can set the scene for your kids and help keep them safe," she says. 'One is that, even if they buy the phone and pay the bill themselves they still have to abide by household rules and having a phone is a privilege and not a right'

Other simple rules might include:

• No phones at meal times and in bed
• Everyone's phones go in a designated place to charge at night
• Parents can review kids' inbox, outbox and address books

Some households even draw up a cell phone agreement where phone use is curtailed if the agreement is breached.

Shields says it is important parents feel in control of their children's smartphone use, particularly when it comes to safety online and setting reasonable limits around how much time young people should be spending on their phone.

"With Vodafone's Red Share plans you can be in control of all the data, texts and calling your children do. Data can be used as a reward for doing chores, which can be easily added using your phone or computer. You can allocate the amount of data your kids use each month. Red Share also ensures kids always have credit if they need to call you in an emergency.

"As a Mum I know it's not an easy job to navigate the ever-increasing digital world. But parents can set digital boundaries and help their children stay safe online. A First Phone celebrates your child's growing independence, but is also a great way for you to stay in touch with them wherever they may be."