There comes a point when your child needs their own phone. As a parent, it's a fork in the road: on one hand a phone provides a point of contact as your child becomes more independent, on the other it's a gateway to the darker side of online life.
For many, the pros will outweigh the cons, especially if you have a child who is about to head off to secondary school. You want to know they arrive safely and you want them to be able to contact you if they need to.
You could get a dumb phone - like the new Nokia 3310 - but in reality, it's likely to be time for the first smartphone.
Why choose an Android phone?
The immediate advantage that Android offers is price. Let's be honest, while many children will want the latest iPhone, sending them into the wild with a £700 phone is asking for trouble.
In reality, there's very little meaningful difference in functionality between iPhone and Android: they both offer almost exactly the same apps and services with only a few Apple services you won't get - like iMessage or FaceTime.
What you can do, however, is give your child a powerful new phone that's perhaps a third of the price. Here are some of the best phones for kids you might consider:
These devices all cost under £150. There are cheaper devices you can buy, but it very much depends on how much you want to spend. The Moto E is a good compromise when it comes to buying a phone that works well, isn't filled with bloat, does pretty much everything and costs just over £100.
Of course, you can use an old handset (which many people choose to do), but the major downside there is that the battery is likely to be poor.
Your account or a new Google account?
This is a big decision to make: (a) do you set-up that child on a device with your account or (b) do you create an account for them?
Google accounts have a minimum age of 13 (as do Facebook accounts), so if you're signing up a child for an account, they need to be that old, or you have to tell a white lie to get that account registered. This age is likely to be in place because a Google Account provides an account on YouTube as well.
The route you take makes a difference: any Android phone can accept a Google account, but not all phones accept multiple users. Devices in a fairly pure Android form do, like Motorola or Nokia, which means you can sign in with your account, i.e., option (a) then setup a profile for your child as a safe space.
Alternatively you can sign in with your account and then disable features, although ultimately, it's your full adult account, with your payment details and so on, which may cause problems later down the line.
Ultimately, we suspect many will opt for option (b) to create a new Google account that's not linked to the parent account and the start of that child's online independence.
What about Google Family Link?
Google Family Link provides an avenue for a parent to set-up a child account and then supervise it which solves some of these problems, but it's only available in the US, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia - and has not come to the UK.
In theory it resolves the above issue in giving you a controllable child account that a parent can manage. Sadly, it's not universally available and you might still want to take some of these steps even if you can access it.
Parental controls within Android
Once you have decided how you're going to setup your child's account there are a range of steps to take within the device itself to give you some control.
Credit cards vs gift cards
Firstly, there's no need to enter payment details if you're setting your child up with their own account. No card on file, no buying, no in-app purchases of "coins", it's as simple as that.
If you do want to let them buy things then a Google Play gift card (widely available in supermarkets) can resolve that problem and give credit for music, apps or other digital content they may want.
Parental controls in Google Play
Despite not allowing accounts until you're 13, Google Play actually has parental controls which you need to enable. These govern all the Google Play properties - apps, movies, TV, magazines and music.
- Open the Google Play app
- Tap the hamburger menu in the top left-hand corner
- Scroll down to Settings and select
- Tap parental controls
Within this area, you can set age ratings - PEGI for games, the familiar U, 12, 15 for movies and TV, as well as restricting explicit content in magazines and music, which is a great starting point. Note the Play Music app also has a separate control for limiting explicit lyrics in mixes.
Controlling all these will mean that you've taken some steps to protect your child from content they might stumble across when searching within Android's catalogue.
You, as parent, can also set the PIN on this area so it can't be changed by the child.
Parental controls in Google search - SafeSearch
Controlling apps and accessible content is one thing, but modern devices provide access to everything through search and the browser. There are some settings to lock these down, however.
Google SafeSearch aims to filter out explicit results like pornography in search results - spanning images and video too. Google admits that it's not 100 per cent accurate, however.
To turn on SafeSearch, you'll have to open up the Google app on your Android device. Depending on your phone type, this might be an app with the G icon, or accessible in the settings, or both.
This is what you're looking for:
Here's how to get there:
- Open the G app (Google Search app)
- Tap the hamburger menu in the bottom right-hand corner
- Tap Settings, then Accounts & privacy
- Toggle on SafeSearch filter
You can also get to step 3 above by heading into your devices main settings menu, Google, Search - but beware that different manufacturers rearrange their settings menus differently.
It's also worth noting that Google does nothing to protect this setting, and anyone can turn it off again.
Parental controls in YouTube
YouTube is catnip for the young. It's often the most requested area, the starting point to solving problems, researching everything from make-up tutorials to recipes, cartoon episodes to Minecraft guides.
YouTube is also a bit like the Wild West, in some ways unregulated and full of content you probably don't want your child getting to. You could opt for YouTube Kids, but even that's not really safe, but it is at least being addressed.
To find the content controls in YouTube:
- Open the YouTube app
- Tap on your profile picture top right and tap Settings
- Then tap on General
- Then toggle on the Restricted Mode
Again, Google states that this isn't 100 per cent accurate, but it will mean that some content flagged as inappropriate won't appear.
Also, like search, there's nothing to stop this setting being turned off by the child user.
Parental control apps
While Android's specific controls essentially stop there they only provide a layer of protection. Trust plays a huge part in your child's use in this situation - and trust and education in online safety should be a big part of your role as a parent.
Setting rules and boundaries, as well as monitoring what your child is doing online remains your responsibility. It's here that parental control apps can help. There are lot on offer ranging from full-on spying to lighter controls.
We can recommend Screen Time, which is an effective balance, providing a little more protection and control for your child, although there are lots of options out there.
Screen Time features and benefits
- Set usage limits and bedtimes
- A reward system to grant more time for chores
- Prevent and control the installation of new apps
- Block access to particular apps
There are lots of advantages to using something like Screen Time. Once installed on the child's device, control is granted to the app on an adult's device (with Android and iPhone supported), so you get controls without constant physical intervention.
It will let you control the apps that are installed, needing permission for new apps, meaning you can avoid spamware, spyware or anything inappropriate.
You can closely govern times, choosing how long each day apps can be used - while also having granular control over the apps, so you can have no restriction on some if you choose. You can also just pause the device so it can't be used, if you need to.
Beyond that you get a log of Google searches and websites visited, giving you extra piece of mind that you know what's going on, but Screen Time doesn't go to the extent of letting you read all of your child's messages. You may or may not choose to do that yourself.
Screen Time can also be applied to other devices and other children. It will cost you £2.99 a month for the full range of features.
Network and Wi-Fi content blocking
It's not only on the device that you need to think about content, it's off the device too and this is where networks can also provide some more protection.
Depending on the service you opt for, it's worth having the child's phone account in your name, so that you run the account. You can then investigate filtering offered by the network meaning that adult content is blocked. If it's your account, you stay in control of this setting. The shot below is from iD Mobile.
Again, it's not an absolute solution, but it can go a long way to ensuring that accidental or peer-pressured intentional searches for inappropriate content don't yield fruitful results.
Pulling this back into your own Wi-Fi network at home - where a lot of a child's device usage is - there are often protections that you can enable via your ISP or router. The Below is from BT.
Many ISPs will let you set internet-wide content filtering. BT, for example, will let you choose categories to block and the level of blocking you want - as well as specific websites that you can black list or white lists, as well as times that filtering operating.
There's a lot to consider when it comes to setting-up an Android phone for your child. The most important thing is that you are responsible and you are in control - keeping your child safe online falls to the parent to be responsible and use the necessary tools.
Children probably won't want these protections and will always encounter people who have no boundaries. Deciding whether your child needs WhatsApp - considering there are almost no privacy controls at all - when yourself or your child's friends are using it is a decision you'll have to make.
Banning smartphones outright isn't the answer to online concerns. While that might keep your child away from the dark side of the web, it will also alienate your child rather than educating them in how to stay safe online. Ultimately, they will end up online sooner or later.
Guiding your child on how to be safe and responsible online is as much a part of modern parenting as encouraging them eat vegetables or the joys of reading a book. Apps and settings are just the tools, the real responsibility still lies in parental responsibility.