For a device not yet into its teenage years, the smartphone has certainly made itself at home in Australia.
At last count, nearly 88% of us are smartphone users with an alarming uptake of 95% among the younger (18-34) market, according to the 2017 Mobile Consumer Survey.
Chances are if your kids aren’t constantly pinching yours, then they’re pestering you for their own. But when is the right age to give a child a smartphone and how much should you spend?
With no legal guidelines in place, American tech tycoon Bill Gates tellingly banned his own children from owning a smartphone until they turned 14.
In Australia, despite 44% of Aussies considering an appropriate age to be somewhere between 13 and 15 years, 22% of schoolchildren aged 12 or under already own a smartphone device, according to new research from comparison site Finder.
“There is no ideal age,” says Australian cyber safety expert Leonie Smith.
“Each child is different and every family’s circumstances too. However, if we’re talking about children in primary school, I would personally discourage parents from handing their kids a smartphone. But,” she adds, “I am definitely fighting an uphill battle with that.”
Conducting her own surveys in Australian schools, Smith (aka the Cyber Safety Lady) found about 50% of Year 3 and 4 students own a smartphone, with that number leaping up to 70% for Year 5 before hitting 85% in Year 6. Of those surveyed, around 85% owned iPhones.
“Children are familiar with smartphones as toddlers. That they’ll one day have their own is more a question of when than if,” says Kenny McGilvary, communications manager at tech comparison site WhistleOut.
“At the same time, you don’t want to break the bank in giving them a device. As a parent, you should have some control over that cost because, depending on their pocket-money budget, it’s unlikely they’ll be paying for it all by themselves.”
What’s my first port of call?
“Go to your top drawer and take out your old phones,” suggests McGilvary. Recent research from WhistleOut shows, on average, we each have 1.6 spare, perfectly good handsets sitting around gathering dust.
“If you’ve moved up to an iPhone 7x or iPhone 8 yourself, that old iPhone 5s or 6 in the cupboard is more than suitable for most kids.”
Not only will your hand-me-down save on the cost of a brand-new handset but you’ll also get a much better deal on a (SIM-only) plan later.
How do I pick a phone?
Unlike specific handsets for seniors – single-button dialling, larger fonts, emergency buttons – there aren’t really youth-enabled handsets on the market, mainly because “as digital natives [our kids] are more efficient with smartphones than most adults,” says McGilvary.
Australia is an Apple country. According to WhistleOut, around 45% of phones used Down Under are iPhones. Among the android market, Samsung dominates with about 28%.
A new iPhone 8 Plus, bought outright, will costs upwards of $1229. However, the options for reliable, low-cost iPhone alternatives, such as the Moto E4, the Nokia 5 and the Oppo A73 are certainly on the rise, even if they don’t carry the same brand weight. (See breakout for details.)
Brand-new or second-hand?
Giving any youngster a pricey device is problematic, says McGilvary: “One, it’ll probably get broken, or lost, or forgotten. Two, you’ll probably get pestered for an upgrade whenever a new model comes out.”
You might also consider trading in your old one at exchange outlets such as Mazuma and using that cash to buy your child a newbie.
“It often makes sense to buy a handset outright [as opposed to through a plan] and then find a plan to match especially for lower-cost handsets,” says McGilvary.
“But you might be looking at a price point of $1500 to $1800 for your high-end phones brand-new. Is that really something you’d trust your child with?”
Are there kid-friendly plans?
Yes. The days of kids racking up $1000 mobile bills should be long behind us, assuming you stick to prepaid, no-contract plans with automatic top-ups disabled.
We asked WhistleOut to pick out the best plans for your young (under 10), tween and teenage offspring. All plans have unlimited talk and text to Australian numbers as standard.
As entry level as it gets, $10 a month is a great price for very young kids new to phones and unlikely to use much data. 1GB should suffice; at that age, if your kids aren’t with you, they’re at school.
Encourage them to use wi-fi at home and remember to turn off auto top-up (in settings) to avoid bill shock.
Here we’re looking at kids finishing junior school and starting senior school. SIM-only plans start showing their value, where parents still control the spending but there’s a lot more data on offer.
“From 10 upwards, your kid’s going to be using a lot more apps, listening to more music and, in general, being a lot more active [online] for a lot longer,” says McGilvary.
“The average amount of data used in Australia is currently 2.5GB across all ages. So 5GB-plus should offer that sweet spot with a little buffer built in.”
While Virgin Mobile has the larger allowance of the three (6.5GB), this plan requires a 12-month contract.
Both the Jeenee and Spintel plans are month-by-month, allowing you to chop and change should a better deal come along.
By teenagers, we’re talking mid to late high school students but pre-undergraduate. Teens are typically big on social media, catch-up TV and video streaming services, so data volume is crucial.
“The higher price tag reflects the higher usage habits in this age group,” says McGilvary. “10GB should be plenty, and those starting to work weekend or after-school jobs should be able to afford $30 a month.”
At $34 the Moose plan is marginally dearer per month but has no contract; the Jeenee plan is on a 12-month contract with a $10 set-up fee.
As with the previous two categories, it’s important to teach your children smart phone management early – whether that’s tracking data usage or, for the older ones, ensuring they have sufficient funds in the bank for the monthly debit.