Phones for kids: A buying guide to age-appropriate tech

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12 mins
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So your kid wants a phone. Is 10 too young? But their friends have one? It’s a dilemma most parents face at some point—and it’s a tough one, having to navigate the risks of digital technology in children’s hands while satisfying their desires in a reasonable way.

After all, technology already plays a major role in our children’s lives, with blackboards replaced by iPads and homework submitted by email. But parents the world over worry about the content kids might access online, whether they’re getting too much screen time, and if tech addiction is a real thing.

One place to start is by looking at products out there designed just for kids based on their age. And, indeed, the most common age that a kid gets their own cell phone is when they’re around 10 years old

Here is our comprehensive guide for you this gift-giving season. 

(Note: We don’t have a business relationship with any of the brands or products mentioned. When it comes to tech gear for kids, always read the privacy policies to assess whether it offers enough protection for your family.)  

Jump to…
Age 0-2 years (babies)
Age 2-5 years (toddlers & preschoolers)
Age 6-9 years (bigger kids)
Age 10-12 years (pre-teens/tweens)
Age 13 years and above (teens)
How to spot tech dependence
A VPN can keep your kids safe online

Age 0-2 years (babies) 

In their first three years of life, a child’s brain is growing the fastest. It’s a time when their social, emotional, and motor skills are being developed—and when your little ones are connecting with the world through their senses. 

A baby’s waking hours should mainly be spent interacting with the real world so they can absorb everything around them. For example, watching a rattle shake and make a noise on a screen won’t be nearly as rich an experience for your child as them holding the rattle in their hand. 

[New parent? Find out how you can stay smart about your children’s privacy]

While there’s no conclusive evidence about the exact effects of cell phone use on small children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies under 18 months only interact with a mobile device if they’re on a video call. Also, because babies’ skulls are thinner than adults, just make sure that you’re the one holding the phone when your tot is babbling to Grandma to keep them away from the phone’s (RF) radiation waves. 

If you need to give your baby your cell phone as a quick distraction, put it on airplane mode. This also drastically reduces your little one’s exposure to the phone’s RF waves.

Tech for babies under 2: Electronic toys & educational shows

Under 18 months

Electronic toys that light up and play music are hugely captivating to little audiences. They can also help your baby hone their manipulative hand skills. Just make sure you mix their toys that require double-A batteries with ones that don’t, like sensory books, balls, and blocks, that develop their fine motor skills.  

Top picks for electronic baby toys: 

18-24 months

Experts caution against letting your little ones watch seemingly harmless YouTube videos unattended, as they may redirect to inappropriate content. Instead, it’s advised that parents spend at most two hours per day co-watching high-quality, educational programs with their babies. 

Shows like Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues, and Sesame Street are a fun way to learn and a great bonding activity when watched together. 

Toddlers at this age also love to mimic their parent’s behavior. If your little one has been pining for your mobile device, consider getting them a baby toy phone of their own that looks (and sounds) like the real deal. 

Top picks for toy phones: 

  • HISTOYE Baby Toy Phone (6 months+)
  • Infini Fun Talkie Phones (12 months+)
  • BABYFUNY Kids Toy Phone with Music & Lights (12 months+)
  • Baby Shark Cell Phone Toy (18 months+)
  • LeapFrog Chat and Count Emoji Phone (18 months+)

Age 2-5 years (toddlers & preschoolers)

At this age, your child is likely well aware of the digital technology that surrounds them. And while there are more apps and gadgets suitable for children at this age than ever before, experts caution that you should still only allow them to use technology sparingly. 

Between the ages of 2 and 5, it’s advised that children aren’t exposed to more than one hour’s worth of screen time in a single sitting. Parents are also encouraged to avoid letting their children use devices at least two hours before bedtime. Access to mobile devices, computers, and TVs should also be limited in the home, and all exposure to technology should also come with an educational component. 

Tech for 2- to 5-year-olds: Kids’ tablets and readers 

A good way to encourage reading is to invest in an e-reader made for little kids. Not only can these types of devices house thousands of stories for you to read to your little one at bedtime, but some don’t even require supervision—reading the story out loud to your kid so you don’t have to. 

Tablets designed just for kids are also a fun way to fine-tune your child’s motor skills. Interactive apps also offer a more beneficial level of engagement than regular TV shows, encouraging your child to test their knowledge and strengthen their memory by matching objects or solving puzzles.

Tablets for kids are usually more durable than regular tablets and come in fun, colorful designs. They also have parental controls and certain features built-in, including content restrictions, location tracking, and multiple user logins. Subscriptions to kid-oriented services and child-friendly apps are also generally pre-installed on tablets for kids. 

If you’re downloading an app straight onto your tablet for your child to interact with, just make sure you check the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC) rating first, instead of relying on the one provided by the app store as these aren’t always accurate. 

Top picks for kids’ tablets and e-readers:

Tech for 2- to 5-year-olds: Kids’ play devices  

Because computers play an important role in education, some parents start introducing their preschoolers to the internet from the age of about 4. Experts don’t have any guidance against this, but emphasize that children should only be allowed online under supervision. Kiddle, Google’s visual search engine for kids, is a good way to introduce little ones to the idea of internet searches. 

If you’re ready to introduce your child to the idea of one day owning a smartphone, or you want to distract them from always trying to get hold of your own, then investing in a handheld smart device for kids may be the perfect option. 

These smartphone-lookalike devices allow kids to send their parents real text messages, photos, and stickers over Wi-Fi—without the potential dangers that come with your child having free access to a real cell phone.

Top picks for kids’ play devices:

Age 6-9 years (bigger kids)

Technology and education go hand-in-hand, especially in a post-pandemic world that forced children across the globe to shift their classes online. By the time kids reach elementary school, they’re likely already using technology on a daily basis. 

As a result, parents usually need to take a more active role in monitoring their kid’s online usage. Built-in parental controls like Microsoft Family for Windows and Parental Controls on Mac can limit your child’s web and app usage, and help you set time limits for their computer time. 

On a recreational basis, it’s recommended that children who fall into this age bracket shouldn’t have more than two hours of screen time per day. In fact, a recent study discovered that less recreational screen time in children aged 2 to 17 results in additional health benefits. 

However, if your child is set on utilizing technology in their free time, try to opt for devices that let them play games that encourage movement—like those made for the Nintendo Switch

Tech for 6- to 9-year-olds: Kids’ emergency phones

At this age, your child may be pushing for a phone of their own—especially if their peers have one. While experts are adamant that you should try waiting as long as possible before giving your child a smartphone (as it makes them vulnerable to cyberbullying, child predators, and social media distractions), you may still want to get an emergency phone for your child so they can stay in touch with you whenever they’re not at home. 

In this case, experts recommend you give your kid a smartphone alternative—also known as a kid’s cell phone, or mobile phone that doesn’t have internet access. Additionally, child-friendly smartwatches that have been designed with kid safety in mind, are also a great alternative to smartphones. These allow parents to track their children’s movement via GPS, without having to rely on the internet. 

Top picks for kids’ emergency phones:

Age 10-12 years (pre-teens/tweens)

According to Nielsen research, 10 is the average age that parents give their children their first cell phone. Close to half (45%) of U.S. kids also receive their first cell phone service plan between the ages of 10 and 12. 

Of the parents surveyed, 90% said the main reason they gave their child a phone before the age of 13 was so that they can reach them easily. Close to 80% of parents admitted that they gave their child wireless service in a bid to be able to track their location. 

Additionally, while 77% of parents said their main concern about their kids using a mobile device is how easily the phone could be lost, mental health experts say a parent’s primary concern about giving their child a phone before the age of 13 should be how easily they’re able to access social media. 

Despite social media sites like Facebook and Instagram having an age limit of 13 and above, it was recently discovered that 40% of kids under the age of 13 already have accounts on these platforms. Another study found that 10-year-old girls were particularly vulnerable to the risks associated with prolonged social media use—including bullying, anxiety, depression, and (in extreme cases) suicidal thoughts. In ExpressVPN’s own survey of Generation Z, 86% of respondents said social media has a direct impact on their happiness.

This is why experts recommend that all smart devices being used by tweens should have parental controls installed on them, and features to block inappropriate content. 

Tech for 10- to 12-year-olds: Phones with robust parental controls 

There are a number of kid-friendly smartphones like this on the market that allow parents to unlock certain apps and features as their child matures. 

For example, the range of phones from brands like Pinwheel, Troomi, and Palm block harmful content and let parents monitor their child’s apps and internet usage while tracking their location, and the images being saved to their camera library. 

Top picks for phones with strong parental controls:

Age 13 years and above (teens)

By this age, most children are given the freedom to choose when and how they want to connect to various devices. Once teenagers have a phone, they’re probably mainly using it as a social tool—to chat with friends, access social media sites, and post online. 

Teaching them the basics about their online safety and privacy can also go a long way to keeping them safe, without you having to constantly pry into their social lives. You can find out more about the best ways to keep your child safe online with our handy internet safety guide.

Parental controls are still a must. For one thing, turning on parental controls means your kid can only download apps with your approval—which is good for their safety but also protects you from unexpected app charges. You’ll also be able to set screen-time limits.

In terms of what cell phone you should give your teen at this age, it all comes down to your budget. There are plenty of certified pre-owned devices available, or you could simply give them your old phone. Here are a few other options for teens:

Top picks of phones for teens (2022):

How to spot tech dependence  

For a lot of parents, their kids becoming dependent or addicted to technology is a primary concern. Like all good things in life, moderation is key. 

If you’re worried that your child is spending too much time in front of their screens, or that they’re developing an unhealthy relationship with their devices, here are a few early warning signs you can look out for: 

  • Your kid complains that they’re bored or unhappy when they don’t have access to their favorite device. 
  • Your kid has a tantrum or they become difficult when you set screen time limits.
  • Screen time has begun to interfere with their sleep, school work, and face-to-face interactions.
  • You discover that they’ve been hiding the content they’re accessing online.
  • They’ve started copying your bad habits. If you feel like you’re spending too much time in front of your screen, and notice your child is too, maybe try and adjust your own behavior.

A VPN can keep your kids safe online

Consider adding an extra layer of security to kids’ devices by investing in a VPN—a simple way to increase your child’s anonymity and encrypt their internet connection. A single ExpressVPN subscription allows you to connect up to eight different devices, of any platform, at any one time.

Worried about inappropriate content? Our apps come with an adult-site blocker built-in. If you use ExpressVPN on your router, such as with our Aircove router, the adult-site blocker can be enabled on your whole home network.

FAQ: What age to give kids a phone?

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