How to set up your kid’s first smartphone

So, the time has finally come to set up your tween or teen’s first smartphone. Maybe they’ve been hounding you for months or years, and you are finally trading in that dorky flip phone for something with an actual screen and real apps.


This is one of those moments that gives us, as digital parents, some pause. Or maybe sheer terror. We ask ourselves if this is a mistake? Is it too soon? Am I just giving in to the pressure from other parents?

set up first smartphoneOnce you’ve decided to take the plunge, setting up the phone is a critical part of the process. But phone settings and filters are only a few of the key steps to setting up the phone (and your child) for success.

Here is a step-by-step path you can take to smooth out this right of passage and settle some of your fears.

Need a printable checklist to help you through all these steps? Click here to download one for free!

Step 1: Check for readiness

I’ll just say it. As an educator, I see way too many kids getting smartphones way too early.

Elementary-aged children and most middle-schoolers are simply not ready to handle having the entire connected world in their pocket. (And some teens or adults aren’t either, to be fair.)

Many experts in the field of child psychology and social media are now strongly recommending that children do not have smartphones until they are 13 or so. The organization Wait Until 8th encourages parents to “let their children be children” by delaying the smartphone until at least the 8th grade.

These, of course, are loose guidelines and every tween and teen is different. For your son or daughter, it may not be 13 or 8th grade, but it gives us a ballpark. From there, it’s up to you to determine their maturity level, their trustworthiness, and their ability to make good choices.

Some questions to consider when making this call (no pun intended):

  • How do they handle screen time lately? Do I typically have to fight them to get off the device?
  • Are they willing to abide by the “house rules” and expectations you’ve set regarding screen time and device use (i.e. no devices in bedrooms, tech curfews, etc.)
  • Are they open and honest with you about what they watch on YouTube, who they are texting, or what games they are playing? Or are they often sneaky and guarded about what they are doing on the screen?
  • How mature and responsible are they in non-tech areas, such as doing chores, showing kindness, and being honest? These are further indicators of their readiness because these qualities apply just as much to the digital world, too.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific assessment that will determine whether your child is ready for the responsibilities of a smartphone. It’s a judgment that you need to make. You know your son or daughter better than anyone.

Step 2: Set the Parental Controls on the smartphone

Both iPhones and Android phones have built-in parental controls that you need to take advantage of. Handing over a smartphone with no restrictions is like giving your teen the keys to a car that only goes 80 mph. And it doesn’t have brakes. Or a steering wheel.

Specifically, you should set the following on their phone:

Enable controls

Before setting up any specifics, you’ll need to enable the restrictions.

On an iPhone with iOS 11 or earlier, you need to Enable Restrictions.

  • Go to the Settings app, scroll down and click General, scroll down and click Restrictions.
  • Click Enable Restrictions and set a 4-digit passcode.

On an iPhone with iOS 12, it looks a little different:

  • Go to the Settings app, scroll down and click Screen Time.
  • Walk through the steps and, when asked, select This is my child’s phone.
  • The next steps will walk you through setting Downtime (time limits), App Limits, and Content and Privacy Restrictions.
  • Finally, it will ask you to set a 4-digit passcode. (Choose something your child won’t guess!)
  • You’re set! You will be able to skip some of the rest of this step.

On an Android, you can enable parental controls on the Google Play Store.

  • Tap the Play Store icon, then click the three-line icon (“hamburger icon”) in the upper left. Scroll down and click Settings.
  • Tap Parental Controls, then click the slider next to “Parental Controls are Off” to enable them. Create a 4-digit passcode.

For Android phones, you can also consider using Google’s Family Link which allows you to create accounts for your children, monitor and limit their behaviors online, and manage apps.

For both iPhones and Androids, there are many third-party parental control apps you can try as well. More on that later.


You’ll want to consider which apps you want to allow, including internet browsers like Safari (iOS), Chrome (both) or Firefox (both). All the controls in your arsenal won’t matter if they still have unrestricted access to the internet through a browser.

Within the restrictions/controls, you can also switch on or off the ability to download apps, make in-app purchases, and other options.

Pro tip: If you don’t want to approve every app they download (because it’s maddening), at least turn off their ability to delete apps. If they are aware of this, they’ll be less likely to install questionable apps if they know they have to come to you to delete them.


Within the iPhone’s Restrictions and the Android’s Play Store controls, you can limit the “levels” of content your tween or teen can access. Apps, games, music, movies, and even books have age ratings, and the controls allow you to set those rating levels for each category.

Keep in mind, these ratings are set by the industries and/or the Apple or Google Play stores, so nothing is foolproof here. It’s just another layer.


Many apps allow the phone (often by default) to use GPS location. For apps like Google Maps, this is fantastic and useful. For the camera app, SnapChat, Instagram, games, and others, this is just one more critical piece of information that your son or daughter might be sharing with strangers without realizing it.

The easy way is to turn all location services off. However, this means you give up the option of finding a lost device or locating your child through iPhone’s Find My Phone or Google’s Find My Device features.

Instead, you need to take some time to turn off location services for most apps, games, and especially the camera.


On an iPhone, you can disable the camera entirely, too.

For iOS 11 and earlier: On the Restrictions screen, under Allow, hit the slider for Camera to turn it off completely. Keep in mind that your child will not even be able to take pictures using the phone’s native camera app now.

For iOS 12: In Settings, select Screen Time, then Content and Privacy Restrictions. Find Allowed Apps, then find Camera in the list (should be close to the top.) Turn the switch off for Camera, and this will prevent the camera from being used by any apps.

A more deliberate way to do this on the iPhone is to go to Settings, then Privacy, then Camera. Clicking on Camera will show all the apps with permission to use the Camera. You can turn selected ones off, but keep in mind that this is NOT a parental control…just a phone feature. In other words, your kids can get here and change settings.

For Android, setting camera controls for your child happens within Google’s Family Link.

Download a printable checklist to help you through all these steps! Click here…it’s free!

Step 3: Explore Your Carrier’s Parental Controls

Before you spend a lot on filtering or monitoring services, see what your own phone carrier has to offer. Most of them have some form of family tools or parental controls.

(At the very least get a service that allows you to throttle your child’s data usage by setting limits. <cough, cough, 17-year-old in my house, cough, cough>)

If you have service through one of the major carriers in the U.S., here are some starting points:

Step 4: Consider the Level and Type of Controls

For some, the native parental controls and the service provider tools might be enough to give you some parental peace of mind. For others, you may need to take the “better safe than sorry” approach to locking the phone down a little tighter.

Before you start downloading and purchasing tools to install onto that phone, take a minute to decide what kind of oversight you want to have on the device.

Basically, there are three different “levels” of control software: filtering, monitoring, and spying.

Filtering applies certain restrictions on what is actually coming through the device. This can happen at the carrier end (see Step 3), on the phone itself, or on a home’s wifi. The wifi option isn’t useful here, as you are trying to filter the web coming into your child’s phone when they are outside your home, too.

Filters can be set to keep out certain sites or certain types of sites (i.e. porn, hate speech, violent content, etc.) It’s always important to point out that no filter is foolproof; it’s only an additional barrier.

Monitoring software and apps report the devices usage details back to the parent (or whomever). The reporting level depends on the app and often the cost, but even the most basic monitors tell you what sites have been visited or what numbers have been texted.

Many software tools and apps are a combination of filtering and monitoring, both keeping out the bad and reporting the activity back.

Spying, or spyware, is monitoring software that allows someone (like the parent) to see the user’s activity without the user knowing they are being monitored. I highly recommend against this type of software, unless you have very good reason to use it, like past serious transgressions. (In which case, may I ask why you are even getting them a smartphone?)

Spyware simply erodes trust between parent and child. If there is an infraction, the parent has to come clean to the child that they’ve been spying on them this whole time. Don’t you remember the look of betrayal on their little face when you first told them the awful truth about Santa Claus? Right, just don’t go there.

Step 5: Shop for Filtering or Monitoring Tools

Once you’ve decided the type of control tools that fit your family’s needs, time to do some comparison.

You’ll want to consider some of the following:

  • Will it work for iPhone? (Most will work for Android.)
  • How many devices does a license cover?
  • What, exactly, does it filter and how does it handle social media, texts, FaceTime, etc.?
  • What, exactly, will it report back to me of my child’s usage?
  • How does it handle web browsing? (Some use a separate filtered browser, requiring you to disable Safari and loading new apps, for example.)
  • How much does it cost?

For more on choosing filtering and monitoring tools, check out Filtering and monitoring: A primer for parents

Whatever tool or software you choose should also walk you through the setup for various devices. Look for tutorials on the company’s website for detailed installation and setup instructions.

Step 6: Have a Clear Agreement in Place

You, no doubt, already have some clear ideas about what constitutes correct and appropriate use of the phone…and incorrect and inappropriate use, too. Sketch these out as a list in a simple document and print them out. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

You can also grab any number of already created phone contracts and modify them to your liking. If you need a start, try this one or this one. <links>

A couple thoughts on contracts, though, before you contact your lawyer or a notary public.

First, the simpler, the better. Long, detailed lists of DOs and DON’Ts are often confusing or ignored. Remember, you just put a magical device in your child’s hand. They are not thinking about Rule #23: Thou Shalt Not Use Your Phone While You Are Taking Care of Business On The Toilet. They are already trying to figure out how to load Fortnite onto the thing, then SnapChat their friends about it.

As the son of a lawyer, trust me. The more detail you put into your rules, the more room to find the loopholes. “But, Dad, you didn’t specifically say I couldn’t use my phone to embezzle funds from Wall Street and transfer them to offshore accounts.” I think “Nothing illegal” would probably cover that. Think principles, not rules.

Second, I’m not so sure it’s a document that needs to be signed by all parties. Again, lawyer’s kid here. A signed document implies two or more equal parties agreeing to something.

As the parent, you are not equal to your child in this interaction. You paid (and pay) for the phone and you gave it to them. They are the recipients of that gift. The agreement is a one-way document, more or less, that says “we expect you to follow these guidelines and rules.” The consequences should be clear (and measured) for any infraction.

If you want to have them sign that I’ve read and understood the expectations, I think that would be perfectly acceptable. It asks them to agree with what you’ve laid out. Just don’t imply that you somehow are beholden to a contract. I think that’s a slippery slope.

Step 7: Have Ongoing Conversations

Talk to your son or daughter early and often about their phone and its use. Look for teachable moments, express interest in their digital lives, and question things when you see something concerning. All this can be done with genuine care and without judgment, too.

This is the part where parents often feel like they’re no longer in control. I know I still have those feelings! Just remember that we, as the adults, have a lot more life experience than they do. The best way to mentor and guide them is to translate what you know about personal safety, kindness, strong morals, reputation, etc. into their digital world.

As they figure out the role this new gadget plays in their everyday life, they need us to keep them grounded and focused on the important (and often non-digital) things, too. An open door of communication, I believe, is the key to this.

Need a printable checklist to help you through all these steps? Click here to download one for free!

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