How to know if your child is ready for a mobile phone

What age should children be given a mobile phone? (Getty Images)
What age should children be given a mobile phone? (Getty Images)

The Department of Education has confirmed plans to ban the use of mobile phones in schools in England, and issued guidance for headteachers on ways to implement the ban.

It comes amid widespread concern about children's access to social media via mobile devices. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex recently called on social media giants to do more to protect children online, while the mother of transgender teenager Brianna Ghey, who was killed by two of her peers in February 2023, urged tech companies not to allow under-16s to access social media.

While some schools have already implemented their own mobile phone bans, the new guidance could give headteachers more confidence to put it in place, said education secretary Gillian Keegan.

Last year, research revealed that parents find knowing the right age to allow children to have a mobile phone as difficult as choosing which school to send them to.

Coming in just behind the decision about when to allow their children to go out on their own, figuring out the appropriate age to give kids their first mobile proved stressful or over a third of parents (36%).

While 74% of parents and careers feel it is important for a child to have a phone when they start secondary school, over half (56%) worry about the implications of them having one.

Almost three in 10 (28%) parents find buying children their first phone difficult because they don’t feel equipped to keep their children safe online, and over half (53%) say it is because they are worried about them seeing inappropriate content or being bullied online.

Mobiles can be useful for children to keep in touch with their parents. (Getty Images)
Mobiles can be useful for children to keep in touch with their parents. (Getty Images)

The research, conducted by Vodafone UK to launch its new partnership with the NSPCC, also found that of those parents who have given children a phone, 42% did so to keep them safe when travelling to and from school.

And 35% felt it was important for their child to keep in touch with friends outside of school.

The news comes as data from Ofcom reveals that the vast majority of children in the UK own a smartphone by the age of 11, with ownership rising from 44% at age nine to 91% at age 11.

One in five three and four-year-olds in the UK have their own mobile phone, according to the same Ofcom research.

But how do you know if your child is ready to have a mobile phone?

According to child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer deciding when your child is ready to have a phone can be a tricky decision and the age can vary from child to child.

The right time, she says, "depends on the circumstances of the child".

"Generally, allowing the use of phones for primary-age children allows them to keep up to date with their parents on any pick-up arrangements or changes of plans, so for a child who gets a lift to or from after-school clubs and needs to let parents know when to collect them, it could be useful,” she tells mobile phone retailer Fonehouse.

Younger children with separated or divorced parents may also find it comforting to be able to contact the other parent.

"That said, mobiles, especially smartphones can be difficult to control so unless there is a good reason, I'd recommend not letting children have smartphones until you're happy to let them start to use social media".

The problem is many parents don't feel confident about setting up safety features on key applications that children use, such as BeReal (93%), Snapchat (85%) and TikTok (81%).

Nicki Lyons, chief corporate affairs and sustainability officer at Vodafone UK says that while a child's first phone is a big moment for families it can bring some concerns for parents.

“Our research highlights that many mums, dads and carers don’t feel confident they know all they need to keep their children safe online or where to start with choosing their first phone," she explains.

If you are thinking about allowing your child to have a mobile phone, Vodafone and the NSPCC have put together some advice for parents about keeping children safe.

Parents are concerned about the age to give their child a mobile phone. (Getty Images)
Parents are concerned about the age to give their child a mobile phone. (Getty Images)

Set it up as a ‘child’s phone’

Speak to your provider to avoid access to certain content or to avoid spending too much.

Activate parental control

Contact provider to limit the 4/5G networks your child’s phone can access.

Turn on apps safety settings

Put content filters, chat filters, privacy settings and in-app purchase settings on all applications.

Restrict WiFi

Contact your internet service provider to set up WiFi controls for devices in your home.

Talk to your child

You know when your child is old enough to talk about certain topics without becoming upset or frightened. When talking about risks, be honest but try not to catastrophise.

Check location settings

Review location settings on favourite apps or games and remind them they shouldn’t share their location online.

Read more: How to spot anxiety in your child – and how to help them (Yahoo Life UK, 6-min read)

Know about app safety settings

For example, TikTok has a Family Pairing feature that links a parent’s account with their child’s; Snapchat offers built-in parental control features, and Instagram has its Parental Guide for Teens with helpful tips.

Don’t forget about online gaming safety

Check the age rating to make sure it is appropriate and adjust the settings to make sure chat and voice features are turned off. You can set limits on screen time too.

Report harmful online content

If you are concerned about something your child has seen online, you can visit the NSPCC page about reporting online safety concerns or call the NSPCC helpline.

Additional reporting SWNS

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