Giving your child a mobile phone: The pros and the cons

Should you finally give in and let your kid have their own device? And if so, what kind?

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At some point parents must deal with a child’s request for a phone. It’s happening younger and younger these days too; a while ago, it would have been nudging acceptable boundaries to give your 12 year-old a phone, now the average age is 10, according to a study released earlier this year.

There are good reasons to give your child a phone. It’s a convenient way for them to keep in touch, especially in an emergency. You can also use the phone to keep tabs on your child’s whereabouts (although every parent should consider carefully the ethical implications of this), and the educational apps and uses for smartphones shouldn’t be dismissed.

These advantages must be balanced with the negatives: the potential for your child’s privacy to be invaded by someone outside the family, due to fact that it is easy to track the whereabouts of a smartphone user; the risk of cyberbullying; the reality that your child never truly switches off; and the possibility of addiction to the device. In other words, a smartphone could cause more problems than it solves.

It’s a minefield, and one that few parents enter lightly.

But what should parents look for when buying their child their first mobile device? The trouble is, there are no hard and fast rules for this. Your choice will ultimately depend on what your child is most likely to use their phone for.

If you are convinced the phone is just for emergency calls and texts, a feature phone – the kind we all used to have before the days of 3G and quad HD screens – will do fine. No internet access, no apps to bother about and they’re unlikely to be mugged for it. The latter is a real worry for parents: would a top-end smartphone make your child a target? Games are limited too, so you won’t end up having to wrestle the phone away from an Angry Birds-addicted child.

The cost of the phone, obviously, will be a consideration. It’s possible to buy a decent smartphone without spending a fortune, particularly if you are looking at Android devices. Where these phones once would have had substandard screens and very few features, there are now reasonable phones such as the Moto G, the OnePlus 3 and the Huawei P9. They will hit your pocket in varying degrees but they are manageable.

Contract vs Pay As You Go

Quite how much a smartphone will cost you depends on a couple of factors. High-end devices will obviously have a higher price tag, but whether you are taking out a contract or opting for Pay As You Go will also affect the final sums. It seems obvious to opt for PAYG for a child; it’s asking for trouble to hand over a phone without some limitations on spend. And even if the contract phone seems like a good deal, do the sums: you are more than likely paying for the handset through your tariff - something newer mobile networks such as Virgin Media and iD are highlighting in their own ad campaigns. Plus, if something happens to the phone, you still have to keep paying the contract. Maybe sim-free – where the phone is not locked to a network – might be worth considering. Pop a PAYG sim in and you are good to go.

iOS vs Android

If your entire household has Apple devices, it may make sense to stick with the brand for your child’s phone. You already have the iTunes account after all. But rather than invest in the latest iPhone, it might be a good idea to upgrade your own phone and give your old handset to your child. If it does go missing – or, more likely, meets a shattering end – it’s not the end of the world.

If you aren’t particularly bothered, you could just opt for Android. The operating system has lots of manufacturers, some of whom offer very good phones at a decent price. Both options do pretty much the same thing: allow you to make and take calls, send messages and download various apps. Plus there are parental controls on both that lock out certain functions.

Display

Whichever phone you opt for, the screen is important. Screen technology has come on in leaps and bounds, but there are still some budget phones that could do with an upgrade in their displays. Those on the lower end of the scale tend to have poor resolution and less responsive multitouch.

It’s not just about how it looks; a poor screen can be frustrating to use and the phone might be discarded after a short time. That said, it’s unlikely your 10-year- old will miss having a quad HD display, so you don’t have to overspend either. A 1080p HD screen, which is fairly standard on most devices at this stage, will beat any 720p resolution devices.

As for size, make sure you get a phone your child can use comfortably. What suits adult-sized hands may not suit a child. You are probably looking at a maximum 5 inch screen; anything over that would get a bit unwieldy.

Storage

Media files, such as music, photos and videos in particular, will take up space. As will apps over time. Cheaper phones scrimp a bit on internal memory, offering a paltry 4GB or 8GB for storing files on. Don’t even bother. That will fill up quickly, and as it does you might find the phone itself starts to stutter. Do yourself a favour and opt for more internal storage – 16GB at least – or add a decent-sized memory card to the bundle.

Durability

If you give your young child an expensive smartphone, they probably aren’t going to treat it with the care and attention you’d give a Fabergé egg. That is just the truth of it. So the more durable a smartphone is, the better. But as many a busy repair person will tell you, smartphones aren’t known for their ability to bounce and live to tell the tale. Still, a model that is waterproof and dustproof – IP68 rated, for example – will likely survive a bit longer. It may also be worth investing in a decent shockproof case for the phone, such as those offered by Otterbox or Lifeproof.

Power

Most smartphones will run the basic games. The problem is when you move up the scale, you could end up with a stuttering, lurching mess instead of Clash of Clans or Pokémon Go. Many things influence the speed and performance of a smartphone, and the processor is only part of it, but when it comes to the chip, for mid-tier phones, the Snapdragon 600 range will do most things with ease. RAM is also important for multitasking. Skip the 1GB devices and go for 2GB minimum. Your child is unlikely to need more than that for everyday tasks.

Tips

Familiarise yourself with parental controls :

Both iOS and Android have ways to lock out specific functions – such as access to adult content in app purchases and even the ability to download apps to devices. In an ideal world all that would be needed would be a conversation on responsible use of smartphones, but in the real world, things can get out of hand.

Opt for 3G:

Whether to allow your child unmonitored access the internet or not is a personal decision for parents. But if you don’t want to find yourself tapped for cash for phone credit on a regular basis, you might want to employ some restrictions. You can disable 3G so that it requires a passcode to reenable it, limiting your child to wifi hotspots.

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is:

Don’t opt for cheap and cheerful without investigating it fully first. If the phone scrimps too much on basic functions, it could prove to be a false economy.

Don’t get hung up on the latest specs:

Younger children in particular won’t be bothered if the chip is the latest Snapdragon or not; they just want a phone that lets them keep up with their friends.

Impose reasonable limits:

No phones at the table, devices turned off after a certain time, whatever works for you.

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