When Do You Get Your Kids Cell Phones?

imageI once heard an expert on the radio talking about kids and cell phones. She was concerned that children as young as gan (preschool/kindergarten) brought cell phones to school.

At the end of the discussion, the host asked whether the expert’s own children had cell phones. "Yes," she replied. "But my kids are big already—nine and eleven."

There are two ways to look at cell phones. Some argue that cell phones give kids more independence. When we can contact them by phone at all times, we feel more comfortable letting them go further distances. They can call us if they get into trouble. Most important for us, we can always always reach them—at least in theory.

But there is another side. Sometimes, easy access to cell phones prevent kids from learning coping skills. Once they are old enough to cross the street or take the bus on their own, they need to learn how to manage when they get off at the wrong stop or there is no answer at the friend’s door. Kids need to learn to make decisions on their own, and not call home whenever they are stuck.

Giving kids cellphones gives parents a false sense of security. Cellphones won’t prevent our children from getting into a bicycle accident or smoking a cigarette. They can’t help us track what our kids are doing. The kids are still in control of their communication with us, and cellphones give them more freedom to communicate with people without our knowledge. And of course, in a real emergency, cell phones can be useless.

Two questions for readers:

  1. When did you first get your children cellphones? Mine got them between 13 and 16, depending on circumstances. My 14-year-old is the only one in his class without one, and it’s awkward for him to borrow his friend’s when he needs to call.
  2. What rules do you set for your kids’ cellphone use? Our kids’ phones (and mine) don’t have internet and they aren’t supposed to exceed a monthly balance. I don’t make the soldiers keep to it anymore, but their bills are reasonable. The kids know it’s cheaper to call from the landline, so you have to keep an eye on that bill as well.
  3. Photo: glenmcbethlaw


  1. We went with the end of 6th grade, since that was the summer my oldest went away for more than a week. The next child is in line for hers this summer for the same reason. Children take their independence when they are ready for it, but we parents are not always ready. So it is easier for us to let them go off if we know there is the possibility of communication.

    I read an article about poverty which mentioned that in countries such as Israel even people living below the poverty level have phones. So why shouldn’t our teenagers? (And yes, of course, spending must be within reason.)

    • If people buy things they can’t afford, that has nothing to do with my teens. Some people find it’s cheaper to keep a cell phone than a landline. I agree that a cell phone makes us feel better.

      • Yeah cell phone for us is definitely cheaper than a land line, a great deal cheaper as a matter of fact. With the added bonus as being a mohel, people can then more easily reach me.

  2. I really like this concept that you mentioned:
    “they need to learn how to manage when they get off at the wrong stop or there is no answer at the friend’s door”
    How do I make that happen with my husband? 🙂 He rarely used his cell phone in the US, but since we’ve moved to Israel, I feel like I’ve become a dispatch operator! Before he leaves I plot out his trip via Egged and GoogleMaps, hand him a print out and yet he still calls me when he misses a connection and needs a new option to arrive at his destination on time – or because this country doesn’t have good signage so he’s not sure where he is!

    On to your questions:
    1. When: upon arrival in Israel – my son was 7.
    2. Rules: phone is only used to call mom or dad – or for a school friend to confirm with his parent that it’s ok to come to our house when leaving school. In almost 3 years his bill has never been over $1./month (I assume this would be much more difficult for a girl!)

    And his phone does NOT have Internet access. I just bought my husband a new phone with GPS, I wonder if he’ll figure out how to use it without calling me :-)!

  3. We got my oldest daughter a phone when her school bus didn’t come on time and the school wouldn’t let her phone home to tell us she was delayed – she was 13, I think. When we started car-pooling again, we didn’t bother to replace the phone (which I had put through the washing machine. ) Now she is turning 16 soon and going into the 6th form so will be making her own way to school more often again, we are getting her another one. She is buying the phone and we are paying for the contract – fixed monthly price around £12-15. She is one of the few girls in her class who doesn’t have a phone. BTW her school does not approve of the girls having mobiles – when she had one before, she handed it in when she got to school and took it back at the end of the day.

  4. We got the oldest two cellphones when they started learning at a school in Jerusalem, as opposed to the local school. They were 12 and 14. We have the same rules – don’t go over a certain amount and no internet.

    When kids go away for a week like to camp, they may not take the phones with them.
    I like what you said about teaching the kids coping skills. However, my kids finish school often after the late school bus comes to our yishuv and after the last public bus. Since I do not want them hitch hiking, they need the phones.

  5. I’ve always said I’d give my kids phones as soon as they were spending significant amounts of time walking around town without me. In my older child’s case that meant his 9th birthday – I was tired of chasing all over town looking for him. I prefer to keep him reachable instead of just telling him when to return because in addition to his being able to reach me if he truly needed to *I *need to know where he was for my OWN convenience – there have been plenty of times when I’ve called him to say something like “please pick up your sister from her playdate on your way back” or please swing by the kiosk to buy milk on your way home. His having a phone not only fosters his independence, it’s a huge time and hassle saver for me. And that? Totally worth it.

    That said, he’s got limits. His phone is a very old one. No internet, no fancy games, no camera. Just calls and texts, and he knows that we can and will monitor his usage. Any excessive behavior or using the phone inappropriately (i.e. during school) will result in its immediate confiscation, and he knows and respects that and uses it accordingly. And I know he does, because I check ;).

    My daughter is only in first grade right now but I expect to do the same for her when the time comes.

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  6. I think it depends on the child and the situation. In some areas there are no longer payphones thankful many schools do not allow the children to bring the cellphone to school. Many parents (of pre-teens ) I know have a cellphone that they give to which ever child needs it that time they are “going out “(not an open line but a pay as you go card type) this way its the child’s phone so they don’t feel the same “freedom” to use it and abuse it but they have it when they need it. Since its not a regular line it automatically limits them .


    • Daniela, I agree, that type of phone is a good solution for younger kids.

    • We do this – a pre -paid phone that has about 30 minutes on it that the older kids (10, 11, 12 and 13) share as needed. Not sure if the oldest will get his own when he goes away for high School next year. Depends on how hard it is to reach him and how he’ll be traveling to get hom for school vacations.

  7. Boy do I feel old! Almost all of my kids were in dormitories for high school. Most of that was before regular folks didn’t have cell phones. (There were some car phones and later big shots had these big black things that look more like a milk carton with a pencil on top – time flies!) Any way I would have really appreciated being able to outfit them with a cell phone, both for the safety of them being able to call if there was a problem with their commute (at least 3 busses and taking usually at least 3 hours.) and because calling them in the dormitory involved calling a pay phone and hoping someone would pick up and then run around looking for them. When my ‘baby’ who is 9 years younger than the youngest of the older bunch started commuting via the Be’er Sheva bus station I was overjoyed that I could get her a phone! On the other hand, I can’t imagine why she would have really needed one before that.

  8. My two oldest got their cell phones when they were around 12 and 11. We were living on a yishuv and they were taking the bus into Jerusalem and it was a time when things were going boom all the time. My two youngest got theirs a few years later when they turn 12 as a bat mitzvah present.

    As for rules, I set a limit — I would pay for the first X amount on the bill and they had to pay anything that exceeded this amount. They were very good at keeping their calls in check and they rarely went over their limit. Babysitting money can be hard to come by, and they didn’t want it all going on their phones.

  9. Mine don’t have yet, but my eldest will get one when she heads for high school , because it will be in a different town (I”m US-based). That seems to be fairly common here- when your kid has a long, sometimes unpredictable commute, he or she gets a phone. And no internet, and I will be disabling texting- at least, that’s the current plan. Texting for teenagers scares me like crazy.

    I could see getting a kid a phone earlier with restricted dialing, as mentioned above. Also, at least in the US, any phone that can power up, even if it has no service plan, can dial 911. So I’ve given old phones to my daughter for emergency use occasionally.

  10. My oldest started asking for one in the fifth grade, when many of her friends starting getting them. By the eighth grade she was in the minority for not having one. We made A;liya when she was in the ninth grade and then got everyone a cell phone (the other two were in fifth and sixth grade, respectively.

    We also instituted a limit, but that is sometimes problematic because sometimes the kids don’t have the money to cover their portion of it. My youngest has the most difficulty staying within her limit so we have taken the phone away on occasion so she can “pay” her part. She has since lost the phone (twice) and the second time we have decided not to replace it. She is now in the eighth grade.

    It’s a problem though. Kids here are more independant than they were in the states (where noone took public transportation until they were 16 or 17) and I find that I can’t get in touch with her when I need to. As far as problem solving, my youngest is a very good problem solver and rarely needs to call me to figure things out (except when she needs money). She hasn’t asked for a phone since I told her we are not replacing the old one, but I am nervous with her not having one.

  11. My kids got phones when they left the house (went to boarding school 9th grade for the boys, national service for the girl). We did have one that was called “the kids phone” to give out as needed if they were going to camp or travelling or whatever, before that.

    The problem is that my daughter always used to keep the phone off, and not be available to us if we needed to speak to her.
    I find texting excellent, it is easy for the kids to send me messages.

    When my husband upgraded, we kept his old phone, and since my 7th grader got delayed at school because of bus problems, we started letting him use it, so he can let us know if he gets stuck somewhere.

  12. Regardless of when you give your children a cell phone, what I want to know is how the collective “you” pays for it! From what I can gather, the average phone bill isn’t less than 100 nis, and I think that’s an optimistic sum. Can everyone afford to pay hundreds of shekels per month for this convenience? Assuming there are several phones in the family of course.
    My eldest got a cell phone in the U.S. when he was 15 or so, as a reward for something or another. When we got to Israel, my FIL took over and paid for his phone, adding my next son at around age 15 as well. Our third son got a cell phone from us at age 14. Number 4 (11) and 5 (6) aren’t even on the radar for one.

  13. I’m in Los Angeles, CA, USA. My daughter recieved a “go-phone” (pay as you go) when she was 11 so she could get used to the idea of it and the minute restrictions. Now she is 12 going to be 13 in a few weeks and has a regular phone on our plan. I worry about text bullying and things like that but my daughter handles her cell phone well. Three of us share 700 minutes a month, we all have unlimited texing and internet, it really helps since she can constantly check her school assignments and grades of homework and tests on it. Three of us (2 adults and my daughter) have never gone over the 700 minutes a month, not even close. Since texting is unlimmited, it is cheaper (that adding more minutes to the plan) and easier to just text. Some people are put off by letting kids use phone internet, but like anything else, kids need to be responsible. In this day and age being able to conduct yourself properly on the web is mandatory for any career choice. On my daughter’s birthday we will get her the iphone…shhh. 🙂

  14. My son got a cell this year. He is 11 and started taking the bus by himself. He has 60 minutes to use over 90 days and each text is 1/3 minute. Those 60 minutes cost $20. He is a fairly frugal phone user and is trying hard to make those 60 minutes last 3 months!

    Last week he inadvertantly ended up in a not so great part of town (long story) and I was glad he had a phone with him.

    His is the last phone I will buy however, without a keyboard. As my daughter says “noone calls anymore — people just text.” Texting is cheaper than calling, but when you don’t have a keyboard you have more incentive to call than text.

    I was interested in a kajeet plan probably only available here in the states. The phones are pricey but you can get a refurbished for less. The plans are very cheap especially if you are going to text and not call. And parental controls are available on the phone so your teen cannot make phone calls outside of hours proscribed by you.

  15. I gave my oldest kids phones when they started to drive, and my younger two phones when they needed to be occupied with transportation issues for high school.
    I confiscated my daughter’s phone when I couldn’t reach her over several hours – just because you have to turn off the phone in school doesn’t mean it doesn’t go back on- as I explained to her it was for me to reach her, and her to reach me, and not a toy for her friends. I gave it back after a few days and that hasn’t happened again.

  16. A few years ago (when my oldest was 10) we had a period in which our kids kept getting invited to birthday parties in a park somewhere, and would need to get a ride home after. We tried to coordinate ahead of time, but inevitably the party times didn’t match up with the planned times and our kids were the ones always mooching a cellphone call off of their friends. It made me uncomfortable after a while, and so we got one phone for the three of them to share as needed. When my oldest turned 12, she got one for her Bat Mitzva, and now the “kids’ phone” belongs to the younger two. We have a similar deal with both phones – we pay the first 50 shekel of the bill, and if they go over, they need to pay for it. Every once in a while I step out of this box that I live in and look inside, and am a bit shocked – but I imagine that every generation has its own thing to be shocked about… and my kids really are very good about not needing to pay over their limit!

  17. Regular Anonymous says

    DS got phone at about 12. After exceeding spending limits at about age15, we took phone away. He found enough money to buy himself a phone but only gets incoming calls. He calls me collect when he needs me.

    DD got one at 10 because she’s a magician – she makes herself disappear. It was worth my peace of mind to be able to find her. Now she disappears less and started talking more. I tried limiting her dialable numbers just a few but she could not learn that lesson that you don’t call Ima 5 times in 30 minutes, so she is now phoneless.

  18. If you get a pay-as-you-go plan in Israel, you can put a very small amount of money on it with the agreement that the kids call your cellphone and you call back immediately (caller ID is your friend). Then basically, the phone is incoming calls + calls to parents (and other adults who are on board). There’s no risk of them going over, since it’s prepaid.
    I think it’s a matter of what your kids do and where they go. If your kids live someplace where they can walk and take the bus and be anywhere on their own, then it’s easier if they have a cell phone to call in with.

  19. 1. My first cell phone was in 12th grade, the last person in my class. Since I hate talking on the phone, it was not a big deal. Even now, I have the second lowest phone bill in the family (after my brother, I think he uses it mostly to look important – when I gave him my old maroon phone, he colored it black to be more manly 🙂 )

    For my siblings, however, the age seems to drop every year. My sister got one when she was 17, my brother when he was 16 (he got himself a pay-per-call one until my parents agreed to put him on their plan) and my youngest sister aged 14 still does not have one but wants one when she starts high school.

    2. We also don’t have internet and certain family members have to ensure we don’t use too many minutes. OTOH, I think that since our plan does not have texting, we tend to abuse the phone less than many of our friends who are addicted to texting. We have a “kosher phone” but without the certification.

    Horror story: I tutored a 15 year old girl who was constantly exhausted. She told me she stays up until 2 am texting while her parents think she’s asleep by 10. Although she was failing all of her classes, she did not seem able to stop herself from this destructive behavior. I feel strongly that the immediate gratification one gets from texting is very harmful for certain types of personalities and it’s better not to have it unless absolutely necessary (and even then to make sure it is controlled.)

  20. Fascinating post and thread.
    I find that 13-14 is a reasonable age for the first cell phone. Now that teenagers text so much I wonder whether they often go over their limits.

  21. LeahGG – Then basically, the phone is incoming calls

    In the USA, incoming calls count as minutes used (and are charged as such). However, some of the carriers have unlimited Mobile-to-mobile (M2M) calls included in the package when they are on the same mobile carrier.

    None of my kids have cellphones yet, but the eldest is going to turn 12 this summer and we will soon have to make such decisions. Right now we drive or walk all our kids wherever they need to go, so there is no need for them to have cellphones. And even when the 11 year old will begin to walk places herself, it will occur mostly on shabbat, so again no real need for a cellphone. We will see.

  22. Ms. Krieger says

    this conversation is very interesting – my DD (two years old) has been fascinated by phones since she was about 15 months old. My husband and I have already started to discuss when we would give her a phone.

    It is a complex discussion. If there were still pay phones around we would not worry about her having a cell phone at all…as it is, I forget my phone frequently and have to bum calls off of strangers on the bus (I do it often enough that regular bus riders on my route know me ;). I assume a kid would have to do the same thing, it does get awkward after a while.

    Then again, I can remember valuing the freedom I had as a teenager – and the privacy – very highly. I was allowed to go out and about quite freely as long as I checked in with my parents at designated times and places. Even now I very often turn off my phone or just don’t answer it…it’s so intrusive…I would hate to make my kids suffer the intrusions that I do not.

  23. Mine all got their first phone when they started 7th grade as that is when they change schools and begin to travel by public transportaion. This started with my older kids because bad thing were happening to buses at that time and then, as the younger ones started to beg for phones, it became a family rule that they would get them in 7th grade.

    They are very careful about their bills because they know that it is a privelege, not a right, and that if their bills get too high they could lose the privelege.

    Two points to add:
    Regarding the independence thing, at some point I got tired of being called and asked ‘how do I get from here (where?) to there? etc., so now I tell them to make a real effort to work it out for themselves and only call me if their situation is dire.

    When my eldest was a commander in the army, he was expected to use his cell phone a great deal to communitcate with his soldiers and his commanders. His bills were rather high, through no fault of his own. I would like to think that the army will eventually deal with this issue, but as long as people just accept it, they probably will not.

    • Sue, I am sure that is one of the things that soldiers in need get taken care of. The army does not want soldiers who are worrying about paying off their bill. But for most of us it’s another way that parents subsidize the army.

  24. not a single person here has mentioned RADIATION. Cell phones are DANGEROUS, especially to young children whose heads absorb more radiation than larger and fully formed adult skulls.

    My kids will get one when they are old enough to TEXT ONLY and call ONLY in a true emergency.

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  25. My girls got their cellphones when they went into 9th grade, mostly because the traveling. My older daughter is under my ex-husband’s family plan, and my other daughter is on our family plan. She gets X number of minutes and Y alloted SMSs per month.

  26. Interesting discussion. We started out with no phones at all – I mean not even a landline. That’s how we lived for 3 years, 30+ years ago. My husband got a cellphone when he opened his business, and we got our eldest daughter a cellphone when she went to sherut leumi. Each child after that got a phone earlier and earlier. Our son got his phone when he went to yeshiva, the next son got a phone in 10th grade, and our youngest got her phone in 6th grade, purely by default. Luckily the school was very strict about phone usage, and she only used it in emergencies.

    I think attitudes changed during the intifada, when it became dangerous to travel around, and people needed the psychological support of having a way to reassure loved ones that they were safe.

    • Annie – I think attitudes changed during the intifada, when it became dangerous to travel around, and people needed the psychological support of having a way to reassure loved ones that they were safe.

      That may have hastened the phenomenon, but in places without an Intifada, like most of Europe and later the USA, the age of first acquiring a cellphone went down nearly as rapidly. I think the “age of connectivity” is the main driver of this.

  27. We have 4 children ages 12, 14, 17 and 18. We gave the older 2 cellphones on their 16th birthday. They were the last of their friends to get one. The younger two know that they will also get theirs on their 16th birthday. We use straight-talk which gives 1000 minutes of talk or text for $30 per phone. No one has gone over this limit, but if they did their phone would not work, until the start of the next month.

    Nice post!


  28. Ours received cell phones in 5th grade, here in the states that is 10 years old. We felt it provided a security for the boys that we were in reach if they needed us. There were very strict rules about the use and they could not give the phone number out to friends. The phone was for emergencies only. My youngest was one of the first in his class to have a phone however all the children in his class would borrow it to call home if they needed something. By sixth grade all the children had cell phones. By the way when the youngest broke one of the rules by downloading a game that he did not ask about, he lost the amount in allowance and was grounded. He never did that again.

    Does having us so close interfere with their ability to learn coping skills or independence? That truly depends on your child and your relationship with your child. My children do not need us to make decisions for them. As they grew into teens they absolutely didn’t want our input. They have their own minds and do not like our two-cents. I wish at times they would ask for help more than they do.

    Cell phones do not inhibit growth, maturity or the ability to cope for children. That has to do with the parent-child relationship and no phone can add to it or take away from it. That relationship is totally dependent upon you and how you raise your child.

  29. I actually held out with my daughter until she turned 14 a year ago and it was really only because I was tired of her constantly asking for one, but I didn’t give in to the whole IPhone demand. For me, it was about saving money as well as setting limits for her that I knew she and I could follow. I figured prepaid cell phones would offer the right price and control and since I was already with a prepaid carrier, Straight Talk, I went to Walmart and purchased a phone and plan for her. While I use the $45 unlimited use plan, I didn’t feel that she needed that much at her age, but I love the service so I brought her down to the $30 1K plan – the data was entirely more controlled and I like that. Personally, I think having a cell phone and keeping track of it is a good experience for kids – gives them a real sense of responsililty.

  30. Yes I would buy phone or a plan that had limited functionality. This is to make sure that the phone will be use not to harm but to protect. I think sometimes having a cell phone at 10 and 11 is just fine. Just imagine those times that you need to meet up your kid or pick them up after school or from scout trip. Well im sure you wouldn’t want to drive to a meet up place and wait for more than 1 hour just because you didn’t know that they are going to be late for whatever reasons.

    But ofcourse before the age of 10 is ridiculous.”