When Keri Rodrigues’s eldest son got his first smartphone about six years ago, he was in the minority among the 9-year-olds in his class. But when her youngest child, now age 9, received his phone, he had plenty of company at school.
“It’s rare that a kid would not have a phone now in fourth grade,” Rodrigues told MarketWatch.
Wireless companies don’t track the ages of their users, but executives at AT&T Inc.
and Verizon Communications Inc.
recently noted that kids are getting phones at younger ages these days. Third-party surveys bear out the trend. A 2019 study by Common Sense Media found that 53% of kids owned their own smartphones by age 11. A more recent survey of parents conducted by Recon Analytics, an independent telecommunications research and consulting firm, found that 65% of 10-year-olds owned phones as of late August 2022.
The Recon survey also showed a sharp recent uptick. Among the 10-year-olds, 15% had gotten their phones within three months of the August survey, while 50% had them prior to that window. The trend was pronounced at the youngest age ranges, with 15% of 6-year-olds having received their phones in the three months prior to the survey and another 15% already having owned them.
The question of when kids should get phones is a personal one for families, and one that requires both rules and the ability to make decisions on the fly. Maritza Guridy, a Pennsylvania mother of seven, got one of her children a phone at age 10 because the child was being bused to school in a dangerous part of the city. But she says her younger children may not need phones until they’re preteens.
“My 8-year-old is like, I want a phone,” Guridy said. “I can honestly say, in a class of 25 students, I wouldn’t be surprised if half already had cellphones. She’s just not one [of them], because we don’t feel like she needs one right now.”
For the children as young as 6 whom she sees using phones, the devices are “a distraction,” in her view. They can also prompt status issues.
“It creates a case of haves and have-nots,” Guridy said. “That’s where adults have to step in and explain that it’s okay if you do not have one, and if you do, be kind to those who do not have one.”
Recognizing that parents often consider getting their children phones so they have a means of contact, wireless companies have also come up with less screen-intensive ways to maintain this connection. Verizon’s GizmoWatch, for example, offers basic features like the ability to make calls and track location.
“It shows that early on, parents want to have that always-on connection with their kid,” Verizon Chief Revenue Officer Frank Boulben told MarketWatch.
Boulben, who gave his own kids phones when they were 6 years old because they took public buses to school, said that parents who buy the watch likely have the same thought process that he did 20 years ago.
“Probably very much like me years ago, reason No. 1 is security,” he said.
Jenifer Robertson, executive vice president and general manager for mass markets at AT&T, said that her company, in cooperation with the American Association of Pediatrics, has created a quiz to help parents determine the right age for a phone.
For Bernita Bradley, a Michigan mother, phone ownership proved to be a lifeline when her daughter was being bullied in school. More than a decade ago, she gave a phone to her 7-year-old daughter after instances of bullying both by a teacher and by classmates.
The message to her daughter, she said, was, “Just in case anything happens, you can always call.”
Admittedly, that didn’t always go over well with school employees, who got angry when her daughter once called home during the school day.
“I was like, ‘I gave you permission,’” she said. The desire to protect her daughter led Bradley into broader advocacy work, and she’s now part of the leadership of the National Parents Union, a group that fights for changes in educational systems.
Bradley sees phones as a safety mechanism for kids in Detroit, where her daughter attended school. “Kids can be walking and just [be] pulled over by police,” she said, and phones give them the ability to contact an adult.
Now she’s considering phone ownership at even earlier age for her grandson, who splits his time between his parents in a difficult custody situation. She’s thinking about getting him a phone at age 4 so he has the ability to stay in contact while he’s away.
While wireless companies have been making it easier for families to add extra lines for children, Bradley noted that some families can’t afford the expense. But low-income adults can be eligible for phones for themselves through government programs, and some have opted to give those phones to their children, she said.
“Parents either have to make sure all kids have phones or make sure the oldest has [one] and picks up the other kids,” she said. It’s “not a fun thing for families,” she added but rather “literally a [safety] mechanism.”
Rodrigues, who lives in Massachusetts, said that giving all of her kids phones at age 9 meant she “could immediately trust them to go outside the borders of our little street.” But managing screen time for five boys isn’t always easy, she notes.
“There is an accountability process for us to make sure the kids are not turning into zombies,” she said. She monitors their phone usage with controls on which apps can be used and when, and she limits the kids to three hours of screen time a day, which can be cut down to one hour depending on their behavior.
The kids, however, sometimes look for workarounds, especially when it comes to YouTube.
“If you have an Alexa, which we have in the kitchen, you can also get YouTube from there,” she said. Her kids will sometimes take the device from the kitchen and bring it upstairs to try to sneak in more YouTube time.
She’s developed a sense of humor about what can happen in a family of young smartphone owners.
“Phones have gotten lost and run over,” she said. “Insurance is key. Usually by 9, they’ve got it together enough, but you’ve got to get a good [phone] case and plan for the worst.”
At the end of the day, she said, “they are little boys.”