Buying a mobile phone for your child | Internet Matters

Smartphones for children

Buying tips for parents

As they get older, most children will probably ask for their own smartphone, and you’ll want to be able to stay in touch with them when they start secondary school or spend more time away from home.

Smartphones offer children the ability to be connected to the internet wherever they are, so you need to carefully consider if and when they’re ready to go mobile and what you’re happy for them to be able to do online. This includes consideration of ongoing costs about mobile contracts as well as the initial outlay.

Expert parent tips for buying a device

Here are the things to consider before investing in a smartphone for your child.

How will it benefit you and your child?

Before getting into the different makes, models and contracts, it’s important you have a clear understanding of how your child will use the phone and how it will benefit your family. This is often primarily about staying in touch when they travel to school. But, of course, smartphones offer other benefits too, from researching homework, accessing favourite programmes, taking pictures and videos, playing games, as well as (particularly important over the last year) keeping up with friends and other social networks.

Talking about this with your child is an essential way to understand both the benefits and dangers. It also gives you a chance to agree with them on how they will use the phone responsibly, both in terms of online interactions and appropriate content. There are some helpful guides to help you shape these conversations, like our family agreement.

Pay-as-you-go or contract?

As you’re likely to be the bill payer for your children, it’s important to know that data for internet browsing along with sending videos and pictures to friends and family often has limits and can cost extra if exceeded. Pay-as-you-go is a pre-pay system and therefore ideal for children. Monthly contracts cost a regular amount but could incur further charges for going over allowances. Many of these allow you to cap over-spend which is worth checking before signing a contract.

Along with the costs, it’s also worth considering that modern smartphones often assume an internet connection of some sort to work when out and about. If you want to send or receive files or use messaging apps, then including data in the contract is important.

Where you do include data in the contract of your child’s phone, it’s important to understand that this will be outside any monitoring or restrictions you set up as part of your home Wifi internet access. There are some devices, like Circle, that can be set up to control mobile data at the same time, but these often have a subscription charge for this feature.

The majority of phone networks provide controls to limit the data children can access and to avoid seeing adult content. Also, there are some specific networks like ID Mobile that provide content restrictions specifically to protect children from viewing inappropriate content online via a related app.

Setting up social and gaming apps

All smartphones have access to the most popular social media services, such as Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, and this is probably one of the most used features on many children’s phones. It’s also worth considering that many of these phones are now powerful enough to run complex video games with online interactions.

Games like Roblox, Among Us, Genshin Impact and Fortnite can run on smartphones and are a common way for children to interact with people they don’t know online. Understanding this enables you to set up appropriate restrictions and limits in the phone itself and specific video games.

Expert advice from Andy Robertson. Read Taming Gaming for tips on specific games.

Which phone to get?

If your child only needs a phone for emergencies, then a simple one will do. The benefit of more basic (non-smart) phones is that their battery lasts much longer so they don’t need charging every night.

If you want your child to access more features, then a smartphone is a better option. These are more expensive than a basic phone but provide much wider functionality as a child’s phone. They are essentially mini-computers your child can carry around with them. Along with the cost, it’s worth bearing in mind that more complex phones require more time and consideration setting them up.

Finally, as the costs of smartphones increase, you should consider the implications of them being damaged or stolen. A protective phone case is essential for youngsters, and insurance can be a good idea in case the phone is misplaced.

Apple or Android?

Of the most popular phones, those running on Android tend to be more complicated with more options, while Apple’s usually keep things simpler. Both Apple and Android offer ways to restrict access to the internet and the ability to purchase apps. However, other phones may be more appropriate for younger children and some are reviewed below.

Finding a balance between cost, features and simplicity is the key for the right phone for your child. Avoid getting them a phone because that’s the one other children have got. Although peer pressure can play a part here, it’s important that you get the appropriate device on the basis of how it functions. Considering what other devices you already have can ensure you avoid a mixed economy of technology that can be harder to manage. You know your child best and are in a position to choose the right technology that works for them and you. Our Transition guide for back to school expands on this topic.

Phones to consider for your child

See reviews of selected phones that are currently available with pointers on the age they’re appropriate for, their level of functionality and the safety features they offer.

Samsung Galaxy J3 2017

The Samsung Galaxy J4 is a good option for children because of its robust design and strong features. It is dust resistant and water repellent and comes in a choice of colours.

As a slightly older handset, it’s available at £159.95 (increased over the last 12 months), which gets you a lot of features for your money — like a front and rear-facing camera and plenty of storage.

Best of all, the Kids Mode app is available with any Samsung Galaxy phone. Once you download and set this up, it offers a super simple way for your child to use the phone safely. This can be a good way to get a child used to a phone at a younger age and then graduate to fuller use as they get older.

The Kids Mode app protects your child from accessing potentially harmful content by setting up a PIN to prevent your child from exiting Kids Mode. A parental control feature allows you to set limits to your child’s usage and customise the content you make available.

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Huawei Y6 2017

A good combination of price and features is the Huawei Y6 2017. It comes with a 5-inch display and high-quality camera. It also has an improved loudspeaker that’s good for calls but also for listening to music, something that children will often do on their smartphones.

It’s available for £70, which represents excellent value.

It also has a larger 3,000mAh battery than some similarly priced phones, which ensures your child can get in touch even if they haven’t recently charged the phone. There are a choice of four different colours.

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Nokia 6.1

These days, Nokia phones are made by a company called HMD Global and come with Android as the operating system. They are also well-priced for reasonably specified handsets; the Nokia 6.1 costs £119 for a 5.5-inch handset with plenty of the mod-cons we’ve come to expect in a modern smartphone. There are more expensive versions of the phone that offer additional storage but this isn’t a necessity.

The 16-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front snapper are great for selfies and social photos alike.

Like many other phones on the market, the Nokia 6 has a fingerprint scanner to keep the handset locked and secure. It is on the front on this particular device.

Parental controls are Android-based and there are plenty of third-party applications to help restrict the amount of phone usage and screen time. They can be easily found in the Google Play app store. If this is still a little out of your price range, you could also consider the Nokia 3 for under £100, which sacrifices some of the hardware performance for cheaper thrills.

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Nokia 3310

If you are of a certain age, you will remember the original Nokia 3310. For many, it was the first proper mobile phone they owned and, if nothing else, introduced us to mobile gaming through Snake.

The phone has recently been reimagined and re-released for £70 (slight increase over last year’s £49 price point), providing a basic mobile handset that isn’t quite a smartphone but is one of the most secure and simple to use on the market.

While this won’t quench your child’s desire to have a multi-purpose smartphone, it will enable you to keep in touch. Also, because it’s not a smartphone, you don’t have to worry about in-app purchases, and web-browsing is very basic, so a child won’t be lost in a world of inappropriate sites. It doesn’t have access to any of the social messaging services either, so that could also be a weight off the mind of a parent.

Instead, it comes with a full-colour screen and is essentially a phone used for, well, phoning people. It can text and it does, of course, come with an updated form of the Snake game.

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Motorola Moto G5

This is one of a number of budget Android smartphones available. Where the Motorola G5 (£150.99) does well for children is the robust build quality. It is more than able to cope with the drops and knocks of a child’s life.

It has a good camera as well as a fingerprint sensor for added security. It has good Bluetooth connectivity and is a great option for children to listen to music or audiobooks.

Although it’s not super fast, it has plenty of horsepower for most things a younger user will want to do, provided high-performance games are not a focus for them.

If you want slightly higher specs for a little more money, the Motorola G6 Play (£114.99) extends the battery life, offers a large 18:9 screen and can run games faster.

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iPhone 11

Apple introduced three new phones in 2021 at the higher-end of the market. However, the older phones still available are often a better fit for younger users. iPhone 11 is priced from £489 and offers all the features that iOS 15 has to offer without the larger screen, improved battery and enhanced camera. It is more affordable in comparison to the top-of-the-range iPhone 13 or 13 Pro that start at around £1,000.

In terms of software and speed, a teenage user wouldn’t know much difference anyway.

Security is through a face recognition scanner on the front. Apple continues to be one of the safest options to ensure the phone is not compromised by viruses or external software. Apple keeps its platform locked down, with all apps first approved by the company before they become available.

The parental control settings in the latest version of the operating system, iOS 15, are easy to navigate and can restrict many of the features to age-specific barriers. In addition, a new Screen Time section in the settings provides a detailed breakdown of every aspect of the phone’s use. You can set bedtimes and limit access to certain applications.

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iPhone SE

If your child wants an iPhone, but the iPhone 11 is too prohibitively pricey, the iPhone SE continues to be on sale and is a great option. It is also more robust than the later models and, while it is ill-advised to drop it, it’s less likely to slip from the grasp of a younger user. There are also plenty of protective cases to pair it with.

It is priced from £389.

You can access the iOS 15 Screen Time controls as on other iPhones. This is an excellent way to apply restrictions and bedtimes for younger phone users.

You can limit, therefore, what content your child can access. Also, from within the App Store, there is an age-based restriction that can be put in place for app and game downloads.

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Google Pixel 4a

This is Google’s own phone and is becoming a popular choice. It starts at £349, but it will cost less up-front on a contract and is one of the best Android phones for teenagers who use their handset to watch TV shows and YouTube clips on.

Security is paramount on smartphones these days, and the Pixel’s face scanner is one of the best around. It ensures private information cannot be accessed without you unlocking the phone. You can even register your own face as well in case you need to access the phone too.

But where the Pixel excels is with parental controls. As this handset comes with Google’s core Android software, rather than manufacturer adjustments, it has excellent controls to fine-tune access to all aspects of the phone, including apps, social media and web browsing.

Similar to Apple’s Screen Time reports, the Pixel phones now provide a Digital Wellbeing app. This offers features across all built-in features to help you understand and balance the level of use each day.

The Dashboard provides an overview on how you spend time on the phone, with a daily overview, a graphic of how frequently you use different apps, how many times you unlock your phone, and how many notifications you receive.

There’s a particularly nice Wind-Down feature that will fade the screen to grayscale to help children disconnect as bedtime approaches.

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