Whether your child is eight, nine or 15, when choosing a phone it’s important to understand what types of phones are available and what certain features do.

There are two types of phone on the market:

Feature phones are very basic and are suitable for making calls and sending texts. They cost from between £5-£50. Because features are so minimal, they are a good choice for very young children. They are cheap, easy to use and don’t typically include access to the internet (wi-fi or 3G/4G) or a camera.

Smartphones are more expensive, and typically include a colour touchscreen, camera, and internet access. They cost from £50-£500. Smartphones can do many things, which is great for older children – they can play games and check Facebook, but they are probably not suitable for younger children.

What about internet access?

For many parents, the biggest concern about giving a child a phone is giving them access to the internet.  Whether it’s unmonitored chat-rooms, explicit photos or violence, the web is full of content that isn’t suitable for children.

There are two ways to get online and access the internet from a phone, via wi-fi or 3G/4G.

A wi-fi-enabled phone will be able to access the internet via home wi-fi or at a wi-fi hotspot. If a phone is 3G or 4G compatible it can access the internet anywhere.

Children on smartphone

Getting online with wi-fi

If your child will be accessing the internet at home BT has safeguards to stop them trying unsuitable content. BT Parental Controls is free to broadband customers and allows parents or carers to block unsuitable content and add filters from mobile.

Owners of wi-fi-enabled phones can get online for free at many wi-fi hotspots, potentially accessing undesirable content.

As a parent if your child tries to get online at a BT Wi-fi hotspot using your ID, BT Parental Controls still apply. However these controls don’t apply to third-party hotspots, which mean they could access unsuitable content.

If you are seriously worried about your child access unsuitable content choose a feature phone without wi-fi.

[Related story: Stay safe with BT Parental Controls]

Getting online with 3G or 4G
If a phone has 3G or 4G it can in theory access the internet. We say in theory because 3G uses data, so the phone needs to be on a tariff which includes data (which is measured in Mb and Gb), or have sufficient pay as you go (PAYG) credit.

This framework enables mobile operators to determine which content is deemed unsuitable and apply content filters. Each network has its own way of applying these restrictions. Some impose them automatically and they can only be removed with a credit card. Some shops remove them at point of purchase.

Some networks also have content filters - If you are giving your child your old phone, it’s highly likely you previously removed the content lock. If in doubt contact your network operator.

BT Mobile has BT mobile parental controls, which are divided into 3 levels: Strict for content deemed only suitable for the over-12s, Light to block content only suitable for adults and Off to allow everything. You can read more in-depth information about BT Mobile’s parental controls here.

EE: EE offers Content Lock, which restricts sites with moderated chartrooms, bad language, horror, sexual and violent content. There are three levels of content lock too: Off, Moderate and Strict. By default EE phones are set to Moderate.

Pay monthly customers can remove it by log into an online account and clickingDevice & usage. Pay as you go customers can text Strict or Moderate to 879, call 1818 or visit an EE store with photo ID.

O2: The network offers a Parental Control service, which can restrict children’s web access to 18+ sites. O2 ensures these sites are moderated for safety. If a site has been rated for adults, you won’t be able to access it until you prove your age.

Three: All new Pay As You Go and Pay Monthly customers automatically have internet content filters switched on, meaning you’ll have to contact them to switch them off. Existing customers can set up an adult filter to restrict content by logging into your My3 account and going to Account Security – Update adult filter settings entering your pin and setting your adult filter settings to on.

Vodafone: Content control is automatically activated on Vodafone phones, restricting access to chat and dating services, erotica, gambling and violent games. To remove it, customers need to contact the network so it can check you are over 18, pay as you go users will requires ID or credit card details. The content bar can then be turned off by logging into My Vodafone.


What types of phone contract are there?

There are three types of mobile phone contract, PAYG, Pay Monthly and SIM only.

PAYG: This is the simplest choice. Top up online or by buying credit from shops. The advantage of PAYG is that there’s no long-term contract and no chance of “bill shock” – unexpectedly high bills. Once the credit has been used up, the phone can’t make calls or send texts, although they can be received. This may not appeal to parents who worry about their children running out of credit and not being able to call if needed.

SIM-only: This type of tariff is a good choice if your child already has a phone or if you want to give them one of your own. For a set fee the child gets a specific number of minutes, texts and sometimes even data. Once this has been used up the contract switches to PAYG, so you need to top up to add more credit. There’s no chance of bill shock. This type of tariff is typically the best value.

Pay Monthly: Adding your child and their phone to an existing Pay Monthly tariff seems like a good choice for parents. You can control what tariff they are on and monitor who they call with itemised billing. However, it’s very easy for your child (particularly if they are older) to run up high call charges, by calling abroad or texting premium rate numbers.


What about social networking?

Many children have Facebook accounts. Facebook is easy to update using a mobile phone which has 3G/4G or wi-fi internet access.

Make sure your child's privacy settings are activated otherwise complete strangers could look them up, find out where they live, what school they go to and their movements. Find out how to do this in our articles how to set up Facebook privacy settings and Facebook privacy – how much information are you giving away.

Talk to your child about potential dangers of accepting friend request from strangers and posting too much personal content online. Facebook offers some useful guidance for parents.

Girl on smartphone

Are there any other phone features I need to be aware of?

Yes, modern smartphone have many features so it’s worth being aware what these features do, turning them off if necessary and talking to your child about potential dangers.

Bluetooth: Bluetooth is a type of wireless connectivity, typically used for connecting a phone to speakers to play music without cables, or a headset for hands-free calls.

If Bluetooth is turned on, any nearby Bluetooth-enabled device will be able to scan and detect the phone, attempt to connect and potentially send it photos. A request pops up on the screen and your child has to choose to accept or decline the photo.

Turn Bluetooth off on phones belonging to very young children and advise older children never to accept Bluetooth messages from strangers.

[Related article: Bluetooth explained]

Camera: Taking photos using a phone camera is fun and a good way to encourage creativity. From your phone it’s easier than ever to take a photo and post it on Facebook, or shoot a video and post it to YouTube using wi-fi or 3G/4G.

What might seem like harmless fun to your child could get them in trouble with a school or friends’ parents. Advise your child of the consequences of posting private content online and ensure Facebook privacy settings are locked down.

GPS: Many new phones include a GPS antenna, used for determining the location of the phone for services like Google Maps. Facebook and FourSquare use GPS data or location-based services, enabling the user to “check in” at a specific place. 

If activated the location of your child can be posted on his or her feed for all “Friends” to see. That’s why it’s so important to ensure your child’s Facebook privacy settings are secure. Go into the settings menu, look for location settings and turn them off. Some networks will also turn off location services, so contact your network provider.

BT has a host of useful information for parents at Internet Matters.

Don’t be put off choosing a phone for your child – mobiles are a fantastic way to check your child is safe, just do your research and educate your child about the dangers of choosing a mobile phone.