Updated: May 31, 2022
In this post, we provide guidance on some of the more controversial conversations in parenting right now all centered around smartphones.
Hello everyone! Thanks for caring enough about this topic to take a minute to read this article. I am going to attempt to tackle a question that has become every tween parent’s biggest struggle: “When should I get my kid a phone?” With the average age of 10 years old that this new “coming of age ceremony” is taking place....let us all pause and mourn that statement...the most practical question I am going to answer is “Which phone is the best "first phone" option for my child?”
In a time where staying “connected” Is valued above all else, we need to dig deeper into the why we are even having this conversation at all? In the name of transparency, let me be very clear that this is not a "one size fits all" kind of topic. You are your child’s parent. You are the one putting the blood, sweat, and tears into raising a good human, so nothing in this post is meant to produce shame or cast judgment on the choices you have made or will make in the future. We are all on this journey together and we all fail as parents more times then we care to admit. Good thing our kids are stuck with us.
When I began this journey with my own children, I was just as clueless and felt just as intimated as you are most likely feeling right now. Who am I kidding, I still feel that way! Middle school was daunting and there was so much change happening for our whole family. I knew we were going to have to start tackling all the tough conversations about drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll whether we were ready or not, but we never knew that the smartphone conversation was going to be the one that brought us the most grief. Every parent of teens can attest to the fact that screentime is the biggest struggle they face with their child. While it might seem small and insignificant right now, especially if you are a parent of young children or toddlers, I want to impress upon you that this is a conversation that needs to be had, and much earlier than you might think.
Your children have never known a world without the smartphone. They are digital natives, and are growing up in a completely different world than we did. We cannot begin to understand what it is like for them growing up in this digital world, but we must understand that they are developing their relationships with technology long before they receive their first smartphone. These devices are going to be a part of our lives for the rest of our lives most likely, so we want to make sure the relationships they form at a very young age are healthy, and that the habits they are establishing around their device use are ones that they can carry with them into their teen years and on into their young adult lives. Those relationships start with what they see modeled by us. Scary right?
So step one, take a look in the mirror and make sure you have a healthy relationship with your phone and online activity before you start trying to help your child learn to have one. Model the behaviors you want to see in your child. Change starts with you and me! With that said, I am going to share everything I wish I had known when it came to technology as a tween parent, as well as sharing a path forward that actually does work. So, let's do this!
The question of a smartphone, really boils down to when you are ready, or feel your child is ready, to communicate independently of you. If your child already has the ability to chat in online gaming forums, message friends through their iPads or iPods while on wireless, Facetime, email, whatever form of other communication they might be using, we are already a little late to the game.
We believe part of the problems we are facing with teens is due to communication autonomy being turned over at much too early an age. While our children are very young we have the power and responsibility to keep the voices that are able to speak into our children's hearts and minds close. Once we introduce communication independence, we are relinquishing our ability to be able to filter who has access to communicate and speak into our children.
At FILTER we believe that parents are the gatekeepers of who/when/how/where people are able to communicate with their children. While keeping them safe and developing firm foundations of identity and values is the number one reason to wait on communication independence, we also have to remember that elementary school age children are still learning the art of face to face communication, making eye contact and responding with good manners, “Yes sir” and “No thank you” etc. They are still learning to write with pencil and paper, using complete sentences and proper punctuation. Introducing digital communication too early can impede their learning and educational development and cause them to develop bad writing habits. They need to be learning proper spoken phone etiquette and conversation skills before they can communicate effectively through texts and messaging.
The sad part is, we are also completely unintentionally skipping right over developing some essential life skills. When our children would like to invite a friend to play after school, they ask us to text or call their parents, and we do it without even thinking about the fact that by doing so, they are not being afforded the opportunity to learn how to make a phone call and ask a question. To knock on a friends door and ask them to come outside and play! So I want to encourage you next time you have the opportunity, to have your child call their friend rather than just texting their friend's mom for them. Have them practice saying, “Hello, may I speak with Sarah? Would she like to come play today?” It might sound silly, but we need to teach them how to communicate well under our supervision and guidance while they are still so young. We have to parent in this area with our end goals for our children in mind. If we want kids that can communicate well and effectively in the real world, we have to make sure we are not skipping over these once common place skills.
So my actual first phone recommendation is....dun dun dun.....to resurrect the home phone!
Not a traditional landline, but an internet phone that operates in the exact same way. Oh, the nostalgia of a a dial tone. We bought a basic cordless phone off Amazon, and purchased magicJack, which operates through your wireless internet router. It is only $49.99 to purchase and gets you a full year of service. For each year following, the cost is only $43 for the entire year! This is a way to give your elementary school age children the opportunity to contact their friends, and you, if needed, and also gives them a chance to flex those spoken communication skills muscles, while keeping said communication under your guidance and watchful eye.
When we were kids, if anyone wanted to talk to us they had to talk to our Daddy first, and I think our kids are missing that piece of family and community, and so are we! A home phone creates space for independence and initiative while keeping the supervision and transparency.
Now let's jump into middle school age children, and an actual first personal phone for your kid. I am going to let you all in on a little secret…there are some really great options for your child outside of the latest iPhone. Just like most parents don’t get their 16 year old a Roles Royce as their first car to learn to drive on, we recommend holding off on the fully loaded, fastest, best performing phone on the market and starting with something a little simpler.
Ease them into a personal device, let them grow in maturity, understanding, and wisdom, and get them through the volatile, hormonal circus that is puberty before handing over the iPhone.
I want to take the comparison of driving a little further because it is really perfect for FILTER's approach to smartphones and social media use. The first thing a teen has to do before they can ever get behind the wheel, is read a book, and pass a test. They must learn and understand the rules of the road before they ever get behind the wheel. After they pass the test and get their learners permit, they are required to clock a certain amount of hours with a licensed driver in the passenger seat at all times. And where was the first place 9 out of 10 of us drove for the first time? You got it! An empty parking lot. Why? Because there was no one around for us to hurt, and no one around that could hurt us. And who is right beside them the whole time? Those trusty, loving, wonderful adults we call our parents. Novel concepts here.
After we master the parking lot, the brakes, the blinkers, 10 and 2, and the terrifying hand over hand turn, then and only then, do our kids get to pull out onto an actual road with other vehicles. And it will still be months before we let them attempt to merge onto a 75 mph highway. And finally, after a year (or minimum of 180 days after permit test is passed and you are already 16) of driving with parents, certified 50 hours behind the wheel, AND passing road test at our beloved DMV, are they finally allowed to drive alone!
We encourage parents to embark on the smartphone journey with their children in this same way. Slow entry, walking alongside them until they are prepared and ready to handle to the challenges that come with owning their own smartphone.
With that said, below you will find our recommendations for what we believe are some pretty amazing first phone options for middle school age children. I have chosen three that I believe are the “best” option for a variety of reasons which I will explain below.
#1. The Wise Phone - Best Minimalist Phone
This phone is as basic as it gets and I absolutely love it. This is an Android OS and the only functions it comes with are exactly what a middle school kid needs: Call, Text, Camera, Calculator, Maps. Mic Drop.
The minimalist black and white screen uses words instead of bright colorful apps icons that are designed to draw us in and engage us visually. This is designed on purpose to combat the addictiveness of smartphones.
The camera is actually pretty good! Still not up with the caliber of the iPhone but better than the other two options in terms of picture quality.
The Family Portal promotes complete transparency. You can log in to your account on your desktop or laptop and see every message and call your child sends and receives. You even have the ability to block messages or images sent to your child without them ever even laying eyes on them.
Biggest pro on this device is that it works with your current phone service provider and you can simply add a line to your current family plan. You can also purchase a prepaid phone plan with any of the compatible carrier options. Here is a list.
The phone has bluetooth capability for hands free driving and navigation. This is a great phone that adults who want to take a simpler approach to phones will fall in love with.
Not a Kid Safe independent network if that is what you are looking for.
Camera is okay but not great.
More Expensive than the other options coming in at $399.
#2 The Gabb Phone - Best Kid Safe Phone
Check out all the features here. Gabb Wireless also has a watch for younger kids should you want to pursue that route, but I wouldn’t recommend it for middle schoolers as they think it is absolutely mortifying.
Gabb Wireless prides itself on having 14 essential apps with no internet browser, no games, no social media. They also have their own kid safe network that provides an extra level of safety by filtering the messages sent and received and blocking spam, and inappropriate and explicit content. Kids can have an unlimited amount of contacts, take photos and even group text on this device which is all they really need to be doing anyway.
The Z2 can also play music, has bluetooth capabilities, and GPS tracking ability.
Low cost option coming in at $149. Phone plans start at $17.99/month with a 2 year contact, $19.99/month for a 1 year contract, and $24.99/month with no contract. Use the code "PICNIC" right now and get $50 off!
Does not work with your current phone plan.
Picture quality is okay, not great.
Older kids think it is a "kid phone"
#3 Samsung Galaxy Prepaid Smartphone with Minimalist Phone App Launcher - Best Bang for your Buck
This is a great option for those who aren’t super serious about being minimalist, also maybe aren’t sold and on the whole kid safe network, but still want to ease their kids into using a phone, while also have the freedom to give their kids “more” as they think they are ready.
The Minimalist Software from the Google Play Store is what truly provides the peace of mind to for parents to hand over this device. You can completely block any preloaded app, browser etc. and download the Google Family Link to manage content restrictions and permissions, set time limits, and even lock the phone completely if you want to. This functions a lot like Apple's Screen Time and helps you help your child learn to manage their device use and create good digital habits.
Also a huge positive is you get stay with your current wireless provider. Buying a prepaid phone from Target, Best Buy, Walmart or Amazon is as simple as walking in the store and purchasing the phone. After three months of using the phone in the prepaid style, (with Verizon anyway), the phone is considered “unlocked” and can then be added to your family plan which is a widely kept secret that you can’t tell anyone else about 😉
What we want is for you to be intentional and thoughtful when making this decision for your child. The truth is you will never regret making your child wait to get their first phone, but you might (most likely will) regret giving them one too soon.
Also, think very hard before purchasing your toddler an iPad or tablet, and if you do decide to purchase one, be intentional about forming healthy habits and boundaries with these devices as well. If you hope to have teen that wants to talk with you at the dinner table one day and not be on their phone, it is probably best not to give your toddler a device at a the dinner table to keep them from talking to you. Habits form early.
The truth is, independence no longer comes with their first set of wheels, but with their first smartphone, and you have to decide if they are ready for that independence.
We are not saying never to phones and social media, we are just saying not yet. Don't underestimate the power of yet! The best way to really prepare your child for their first smartphone and social media is to take them through the FILTER Program. You can complete the course with your child at home, encourage your youth group at church to do it in a small group setting, or reach out to your school guidance counselor or administrator to bring the program to your child's classroom.
Below are our #2 pick in each category, and also great options if you want to do some more research.
Troomi Wireless - 2nd Pick Kid Safe Phone
The Light Phone - 2nd Pick Minimalist Phone
Flip Phone - 2nd pick Prepaid Phone