Smartphones for kids: What you need to know

Should you get your kids smartphones? If you do, how do you choose the right phone and plan? Technology journalists and parents Marc Saltzman and Carmi Levy offer some tips.

Tips for picking the right phone, the right plan and setting the right rules

A smartphone might be useful to a child who walks alone to school, takes the bus alone, waits a long time after school to be picked up, or participates in after-school activities independently. (iStockphoto)

When your kids head back to school, should there be smartphones in their backpacks? Many parents have questions about the right time to give their children a phone, how to pick the right phone and plan, and what kinds of rules to enforce. Technology journalists Marc Saltzman and Carmi Levy, who both have schoolchildren of their own, offered some tips and answers in interviews with CBC Radio.

How old should your child be before you get them a smartphone?

Saltzman and Levy say many kids now seem to be getting phones between the ages of nine and 11, but just because your child is in that age range doesn't mean he or she needs one.

"There's a lot of questions you have to ask yourself before you decide if your child is ready, regardless of their age," Saltzman told CBC's Metro Morning.

Tips for choosing a smartphone for your child: Mark Saltzman

A phone might be useful to a child who walks alone to school, takes the bus alone, waits a long time after school to be picked up, or participates in after-school activities independently.

Levy says many kids feel they need a phone because their friends use the devices to access social media.

"If you don't have a smartphone at that age, you're locked out of that social peer group," he told CBC's Ontario Morning.

Saltzman suggests you also consider how responsible your child is.

Tips for choosing a smartphone for your child: Carmi Levy

What kind of phone should you get?

You should definitely get a smartphone — not outdated technology like a flip phone or feature phone, Saltzman and Levy both agree.

But don't get a high-end iPhone because your child is a child and will almost certainly break or lose the device. Levy suggests you could pass on your old device when you upgrade. But there are also a lot of affordable Android phones available unlocked for under $200 that should meet their needs.

If you want to let your child take part in the decision, Saltzman suggests letting them choose the screen size — bigger phones are heavier and harder to lug around, but better for watching videos. Levy says you may also want to talk to your child, especially an older child, about what kinds of apps they want to be able to use, as those vary depending on whether the phone is Apple, Android, or has another operating system.

What kind of plan should you get?

Start with a pay-as-you-go plan so you can see how much your child is using the phone, Levy suggests.

"Then you can pick a plan that matches up to their needs. You don't want to go unlimited at the start."

Plans that allow family members to share minutes and data may also be an affordable option.

Saltzman says he started his twins off with a voice-and-text-only plan when they were in Grade 6, since they could use WiFi at home and they were home a lot.

But now that they're entering Grade 8, he has promised to look into a data plan.

"They don't really communicate over text message," he says. "They use instant messaging like Snapchat and Instagram … and that requires data."

What kind of rules should you consider when you give your child a phone?

Saltzman recommends having a written contract with your child spelling out the rules. One of his rules is that phones aren't allowed at the dinner table.

Parents of older children might also want to talk about cyberbullying and sexting, he says.

"You may have to adjust the contract on the fly," he adds.

Levy makes his children responsible for any extra charges caused by them going over their data limits. He also makes them turn the phone's ringer off and put it in an unreachable bag while they're driving, so they're not tempted to use it.

Should you put software on the phone to track your child?

If you do, you shouldn't do it without the child's knowledge or risk violating their trust, Levy says. Instead, you should be clear that it's to help them in case the phone is lost or stolen and not to spy on them.

"As long as you have open and honest conversation with them about tracking software as well as everything else," he says, "using a cellphone will be a positive experience, not a negative one."


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