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What are the best mobile networks for kids and teens?

With research suggesting that, on average, UK children get their first smartphone at the age 10, it’s understandable that parents and caregivers are increasingly concerned about ensuring children can use their phones safely. Here are some of the best phone contracts for kids when it comes to value for money and online security.

Kids using mobile phones and tablets

What makes the best mobile phone deal for children?

There are several key factors to consider when choosing children’s phone deals, including:

  • Cost 

  • Spending caps

  • Online safety 

  • Parental controls

Many networks offer family plans that enable you to add additional devices to your existing pay-monthly contract. These can be a simple way to manage your child’s introduction to phone use.

What's the best phone contract/pay-monthly SIM for kids?

Pay-monthly contracts, with a device or as a SIM-only plan, could be an ideal choice for your child’s first smartphone. Many pay-monthly plans come with unlimited calls and texts as standard, meaning youngsters will always be able to get in touch with you or their friends without you having to worry about them racking up a huge bill. The data aspect can be a little trickier, however. With so much teen culture being rooted in social media, data allowances can quickly disappear, leading to extra costs. To avoid this, look for plans that help you and your child manage data sensibly and that enable you to place a cap on spending. 

What's the best SIM for kids on pay-as-you-go?

A pay-as-you-go SIM is a fail-safe way of making sure youngsters never overspend once their credit reaches zero. Pay-as-you-go options don’t lock you into a contract, either, which means there are no direct debits or early cancellation fees if you decide the plan is no longer for you. The best SIMs for kids are those that offer parental controls and great value. VOXI, for example, lets kids use all the major social networks without eating into their data allowance, while O2 has partnered with the NSPCC to tackle cyber bullying and to protect kids online. 

The downside of a pay-as-you-go SIM is that if your child uses up all their credit, they won’t be able to call you in an emergency. However, some monthly PAYG plans include an automatic refresh option. Another upside to these plans, which are available from the likes of VOXI and SMARTY, is that they are really good value, so you could give your child the responsibility of paying for their own phone usage without worrying about them running up a huge bill. They can even get an account in their name as there’s no ‘grown-up’ contract sign-off required. 

What's the best network for kids?

Whether you opt for pay-monthly or pay-as-you-go, you’ll need to find the best network for your needs. Most networks will offer some level of parental control, but you should also look at what else each network can offer, especially when it comes to value for money. For peace of mind, the major networks – Vodafone, EE, Three and O2 – all block 18+ content by default when the internet is accessed using mobile data. 

Vodafone

  • ‘Free’ minutes and data on pay-as-you-go

  • Parental controls

  • Secure Net

  • Family plans

Vodafone allows children’s devices to be made more secure through its security program, Secure Net, which also protects phone users from inappropriate content. Vodafone was the first network to sign up to the Internet Watch Foundation, an organisation that aims to keep young people safe online. Vodafone’s age restrictions only differentiate between those over and under the age of 18, so if you have younger children, you may wish to look at networks that can block content deemed inappropriate for under 12s. 

Family plans also let you manage all your devices from one account, which saves on the admin of running a separate account for your child’s phone. You’ll also enjoy a discount for every plan you add.

Three

  • Family plans

  • Content controls

  • Spending caps

  • ‘Free’ data

Three’s family plans offer a discount for each additional phone you add to your account, making it very affordable to set up a new device for a youngster. Parental controls toggle between ‘on’ and ‘off’ rather than having the more nuanced levels of control offered by some other networks. With parental controls on, phones will not show 18+ content. 

Three has some of the lowest costs when it comes to buying pay-as-you-go credit, so it could be an affordable option to keep down PAYG costs. You can cap spending, so your child never spends beyond their contract allowance and you can also block calls to premium numbers. Plus, with ‘Go Binge’ options, your child can access Snapchat and some streaming services without using up their data allowance.

EE

  • Family plan

  • Parental controls

  • Spend cap

  • Disable roaming

  • Block in-app purchases

  • Block international calls

EE offers fantastic parental controls that block features that could quickly run up huge bills, like in-app purchases. Children are also prevented from buying more data for themselves. With a family plan, you can manage both your own and your child’s phone from one account, and EE has a wide range of devices so the whole family is sure to find something that suits them.

EE’s content controls have three levels: Strict, Moderate and Off. This is useful for parents who are responsible for kids in those difficult ‘tween’ years who want more freedom online. ‘Strict’ blocks material deemed unsuitable for under 12s. It also uses Google Safe Search, so internet searches won’t return adult content. 

‘Moderate’ grants access to social media sites but blocks 18+ material. ‘Off’ removes all content blocks. These settings only work when the internet is accessed through mobile data, not Wi-Fi. To ensure that only you as a parent can remove the content lock, EE requests credit card details and, in some cases, permission to make an instantly refunded admin charge. 

O2

  • Parental controls

  • Spending caps

  • Customer perks

  • Partnership with NSPCC

O2 is one of the UK’s most popular networks, with features like O2 Priority strengthening its offering. While youngsters may not benefit from Priority access to gigs, that’s not to say the rest of the family can’t. O2 contracts can be extremely flexible, letting you choose your own length, monthly cost and data allowance. 

When it comes to online security, O2 has partnered with the NSPCC to create a help section that’s full of tips and tricks to keep kids safe. Dedicated O2 Gurus can help you set up parental controls, even if you’re not an O2 customer. O2’s Spend Cap feature enables you to block further spending once your child has used up their monthly allowances – so there’s no risk of them running up an extra bill. 

Tesco Mobile

  • Family plans

  • Specific phones for children

  • Parental controls

  • Spending caps

  • Low cost

Tesco Mobile offers some fantastic value-for-money deals that makes it worthy of consideration in most scenarios, including if you’re looking for easy-to-administer family plans. The network also has specific features to help keep youngsters safe. Tesco Mobile offers IMO S2 smartphones with Monqi in its range of handsets, which are designed to keep children secure as they enjoy their first mobile. 

Tesco Mobile also provides content settings that enable you to restrict material that is unsuitable for under 12s and under 18s. And 18+ content is blocked by default setting on all Tesco Mobile SIMs. This content control is only applicable when sites are accessed using mobile data, any browsing done on Wi-Fi or on Google Play will not be censored. You can also opt for a ‘zero bill cap’ or ‘safety buffer’, which can limit overspending, meaning your child can only exceed their monthly allowance if you allow it. 

Unlike most other networks, Tesco Mobile also guards against mid-contract price hikes, which helps offer peace of mind when it comes to budgeting for an extra phone in the family. Depending on your choice of phone, Tesco Mobile can also be extremely flexible on contract lengths. 

VOXI

  • Data-free social media use

  • VOXI ‘drops’

  • No contract

VOXI can be a great option for young people as it lets them access all the major social media sites they want without eating into their data. VOXI’s one-month pay-as-you-go plans are available with different data allowances, but all include unlimited calls and texts as well as roaming at no extra cost. After one month, you can purchase the same plan again, opt for a different one or switch to a new network. This flexibility prevents you having to deal with contracts, which can be pricey to cancel or alter. The network also offers another feature young people are likely to enjoy: VOXI ‘drops’. These are free or discounted treats exclusively for VOXI customers. 

SMARTY

  • Money back for unused data

  • Unlimited calls and texts

  • No contract

SMARTY plans come with unlimited calls and texts. Like VOXI, you pay for a month-long plan and can renew it as you please. Plus, SMARTY offers money back for any data that is left unused at the end of the month, which you can put towards your next SMARTY plan.

giffgaff

  • Low-cost pre-owned options

  • Low fees and device costs

Another SIM-only option, giffgaff offers the same sort of flexibility as SMARTY and VOXI and has the bonus of letting subscribers choose from a range of pre-owned phones. This means you can get a cheap premium handset and a SIM card in one combined order. giffgaff plans last one month and let you leave when you want. Parental controls also block 18+ content. 

Do networks offer specific phone contracts for kids?

Yes, some networks do have dedicated children’s phones, either on contract or pay-as-you-go. While these can seem like a natural choice for your little ones, finding the perfect phone is all about balance. You need to know your child is safe, but you also need to consider the issue of peer pressure: sending a 12-year-old to school with a kid’s smartphone when their friends are rocking the latest Samsung or Apple may become a source of tension between well-meaning parents and headstrong teenagers. 

Here are some of the children’s phones currently available, as well as some alternatives to help you find the best option for your child:

Tesco Mobile’s ‘kid’s first mobile’ smartphone 

The dedicated children’s phone offered by Tesco Mobile, the IMO S2, is designed to prevent children making in-app purchases or viewing adult content. The phone also allows for real-time monitoring of your child’s searches as well as accurate location tracking. Geofencing will also alert you when your child leaves your pre-approved area – for instance, if they make an unexpected detour on the way home from school – and secures chats to prevent them making any unsafe new connections online. 

Vodafone’s child-friendly phone

The Vodafone Smart series consists of several devices that are low-cost and designed to keep kids safe. Parental controls are built in with these phones. Depending on your child’s model, you can use features like ‘force ring’, which will cause their phone to ring even when it has been set to silent. An emergency mode can also pinpoint the phone’s location. 

Refurbished phones

Phones are something of a status symbol, and children are not immune to the effect of this. If you’re at deadlock with an image-conscious teenager who doesn’t want to head to school with a budget or ‘childish’ phone, you could consider a refurbished mobile. Not only are these cheaper than buying new handsets, they are also usually unlocked so you can use any network. giffgaff offers the widest stock of refurbished phones. 

Affordable phones

There are plenty of cheaper brands and lines out there – even Samsung has its affordable A series. Look at Nokia, Motorola or Alcatel for neat, capable smartphones that cost less than £200. 

‘Dumb’ phones

Sturdy, reliable and with long-lasting batteries, ‘dumb’ phones can be a great choice if your main concern is simply keeping in touch with a child that isn’t ready for a smartphone. These are extremely cheap when compared to any smartphone and a lot of 2G and 3G ‘dumb’ phones are stylish and colourful enough to provide children with the good-looking tech they crave.

Is there an age limit on phone contracts?

Yes, pay-monthly contracts require a credit check and a direct debit, so parents or guardians over the age of 18 will need to set up an account for their children. PAYG deals will often require the main account holder to be over 18, too, which is why family plans are so convenient. Some networks, like VOXI, are geared at young people - in fact, it was initially only available to those under 25 years old. 

How do phone networks decide what is 18+ content?

Networks work with the British Board of Film Classification – the same organisation that decides if movies are PG, 12, 15 or 18 – to rate web content as being suitable for under 18s or not. 

Other useful resources

The following links feature a wealth of resources for keeping your child safe online:

  • Internet Matters: articles and resources about protecting your children online and how to react if they come across inappropriate content. It also includes advice specific to your child’s age range.

  • NSPCC: The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children offers a range of information and resources that address a wide variety of issues, both on and offline. These include monitoring internet content and dealing with online pressure to engage in inappropriate behaviour.