Should Kids Have Cell Phones? Experts Pick Sides
Becoming too connected used to be an issue kids had with stuffed animals and pacifiers. Now it’s a matter of smart phones and tablets. And whether this is a positive development remains to be seen.
Sure, growing up in the technology age has its fair share of benefits: instant access to endless educational possibilities and preparation for the jobs of the future, just to name a couple. But it also exposes young people to a host of issues far less benign than anything even the Velveteen Rabbit could throw at you. From radiation exposure and childhood obesity to cyberbullying and sex crimes, kids these days must run a gauntlet of technological issues in order to get into a good college, earn a decent wage and ultimately lead a happy, healthy, prosperous life.
Among the important decisions parents must therefore make – along with screen-time limits and whether to monitor social media – is when to give a child his or her own cell phone. Is there an ideal age? What parental rules and restrictions should accompany the privilege? And, perhaps most importantly, should phones be allowed at school?
Researchers from the London School of Economics found that students in high schools with cell-phone bans received about a week’s worth of additional education each year and scored over 6% better on standardized tests. But how far can we extrapolate such findings, both in terms of younger children and beyond school grounds?
For additional insight that may help guide parents, we posed one simple question – “should kids have cell phones?” – to a panel of leading experts in the fields of education, family studies and technology. You can check out their bios and responses below. And if you’d like to join the discussion, you can share your thoughts in the comments section at the end of the page.
Why Kids Should Not Have Cell Phones
- "Infants, toddlers and preschoolers should not have cell phones. The argument has a few simple points - cell phones are expensive, screen time is bad for kids this age, and the kids don’t know what to do with the phones."
Ross Hunter // Director, Washington State Department of Early Learning
- "There are several reasons why kids should not have cell phones. Kids with cell phones are likely to spend too much time on them, keeping them from doing more productive things like exercising and reading. There is increasing evidence of addiction to electronic devices, which like any other kind of addiction is destructive. Many kids with cell phones lose sleep because of talking at night or because of being anxious that they do not miss a call, and as a result suffer from headaches and sleepiness during the day, which interferes with learning at school."
David O. Carpenter // Director, Institute for Health and the Environment & Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, University at Albany
- "Kids should not have cell phones. I may be alone on this, but I don’t see a real need for them, and I certainly don’t see the benefits for young children. I actually know of a five-year-old child who owns a cell phone. Children’s excessive use of cell phones can lead to issues with both health and safety."
Georgia S. Thompson // Vice President of the Programs and Affiliate Network, National Black Child Development Institute
- "We go to great lengths to protect the child brain with car seats and bike helmets, yet we are exposing them now to an agent that many governments control/ban/restrict. Due to their thinner skulls and unique physiology, children can receive twice as much radiation into their brain and up to ten times as much into their skull compared at an adult. Children’s developing brains are the most vulnerable."
Theodora Scarato // Clinical Social Worker & Director of Public Affairs and Educational Programs, Environmental Health Trust
While adults may worry about cyberbullying when a child starts using cell phones, a more common challenge is often the pressure to respond to friends’ text messages throughout the day, rather than enjoying the freedom to be in the moment with their activities, friends, and family. While a few parents opt for the stripped-down, phone-only device, many parents provide cell phones that offer texting as well, or select smart phones for their children.
That being said, once older kids are venturing out alone more frequently and setting up more of their own social interactions, it can be appropriate for them to have a cell phone. Parents will want to take into account the maturity and responsibility level of their children. This decision requires an extra time commitment from parents. Life changes once your child has a phone. So an important question for parents is, “Are you ready for your child to have a cell phone?” I recommend that parents take the time to be intentional in their conversations ahead of time with their kids and discuss their expectations. They should also have their children share what they think responsible cell phone use looks like. I encourage a written agreement between parents and kids that includes both privileges and responsibilities of a cell phone user, as well as potential consequences for misuse.
But the most serious, long-term concern is the strong evidence that excessive cell phone use increases the risk of brain cancer on the side of the head where the user uses his or her cell phone. Furthermore, there is evidence from Swedish studies that children are five times more vulnerable to the development of brain cancer after cell phone use than are adults, and even with adults the risk of developing brain cancer after extensive cell phone use declines with age. This should not be surprising since the bodies of children are more vulnerable to many different environmental exposures than adults, because they are growing and the cells in their bodies and brain are developing. While brain cancer is not common, it is the second most frequent cancer in children. Even if the brain cancer can be successfully removed surgically, which is not always the case, the child is often left with permanent brain damage.
Some parents want to have their children with cell phones so that they can be in contact in the case of an emergency. This is fine, but should happen only with clear parental oversight to see that the cell phone is only used for communication with the parents in emergencies. Unfortunately, most kids are not likely to abide by such restrictions, however.
The U.S. government just released a major new study showing that wireless radiation causes cancer in rats. Research in humans shows that people who use cell phones for over ten years have between 50% to 900% more brain cancer. In response to this new study, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued ten cell phone safety tips, which include, “make only short or essential calls on cell phones” and “avoid carrying your phone against the body like in a pocket, sock, or bra.” Consumer Reports agrees. Over a dozen high tech countries - including Israel, France, and Canada - recommend that children reduce cell phone radiation exposure. Belgium has banned the sale of cell phones for young children.
Yet cancer is just the tip of the iceberg. Wireless technology also affects reproduction - damaging sperm and hormones. Prenatal exposure is linked to fewer brain cells and behavioral issues. Another study found increased ADHD symptoms tied with higher cell phone use among children exposed to lead.
We go to great lengths to protect the child brain with car seats and bike helmets, yet we are exposing them now to an agent that many governments control/ban/restrict. Due to their thinner skulls and unique physiology, children can receive twice as much radiation into their brain and up to ten times as much into their skull compared at an adult. Children’s developing brains are the most vulnerable.
Phone company 10K filings warn shareholders of the financial risks from pending lawsuits on cell phone related cancer cases. Many insurance companies simply refuse to cover health damages from wireless radiation.
Most parents are unaware that smartphone manuals state that the phone should be not be held against the body because of the radiation. If you must hand a child a cell phone or wireless device, putting it on airplane mode will turn the wireless emissions off. Yet even if parents knew, would children follow these safety instructions?
In 2015, deaths from car crashes rose dramatically. Despite the fact that texting while driving is proven hazardous, the rates of such distracted driving accidents are only rising. The addictive pull of phones that underlies these fatalities is especially great for the young brain. Interactive screen time such as text/picture/video instant messaging apps and gaming directly alters brain function. Each back and forth communication creates a tiny hit of the feel good pleasure chemical dopamine. Brain scans liken the impact to that of cocaine and sugar.
Young children should no more have a cell phone today than they should have free use of guns, cars or alcohol. Children face a lifetime of wireless exposures that have never existed in human history. Setting limits on those exposures now, as the AAP advises, is the safest way to ensure that they grow up healthy and secure, capable of using technology appropriately when and if they need to do so.
Cell phones - like computers, tablets and television - expose children to digital media that, with overuse, can lead to health issues like obesity and learning difficulties. Cell phones serve as another “screen” that can create a barrier to children’s physical activity. While engaged in an activity on a cell phone, such as watching a movie or playing a video game, children may be less likely to move around and engage in physical activity necessary for optimal growth and development. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also reports that overuse of screens, like cell phones, may cause delays in “attention, thinking, language, and social skills” potentially due to decreased interaction with parents and caregivers when using screens. AAP recommends monitored and limited use of cell phones and digital media and provides specific guidelines for digital media depending on the age of the child.
Another health risk parents might also be concerned with is radiation exposure. A recent partial study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows a potential link between cell phone radiation and increased risk of cancer. In addition to these health concerns, children’s use of cell phones can lead to safety concerns as well.
Cell phones pose safety concerns when children use the phone to access the internet and social media applications, increasing the likelihood of their interaction with strangers or predators online, those who may have access to a child’s location through GPS tracking settings on the phone. While this is a feature most parents would deem helpful — knowing their child’s location at all times — it can also pose a risk when this information is accessible to strangers.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to encounter people, including children, walking down a street with their heads down, distracted by their cell phones. It’s important to discuss safety precautions for cell phone use with children, such as being aware of their surroundings in addition to exercising judgment about the information shared online, among others. As with most things, moderation is key. Parents and caregivers should employ limits and set rules to guide their children’s use of cell phones and digital media.
The National Black Child Development Institute, whose national priorities include early care and education and health and wellness for young children and their families, promotes interaction between parents, caregivers and their children and healthy nutrition and physical activity to support the healthy development of young children and well-being of their families.
- Toddlers and preschoolers chew on stuff. Strawberry jam gets into the micro-USB ports. Both turn out to be bad for expensive electronics. Who knew?
- The American Academy of Pediatricians suggests limiting screen time for kids age 2-5 to 1 hour a day of high quality programming only. There is no high quality programming available on cell phones. Really, there just isn’t. Little kids should play with blocks and other unstructured toys. For younger kids we’re back to the jam argument. See the Mayo Clinic’s site for more on this.
- Do you really want your three-year-old taking calls from people you don’t know or making international calls by accident?
Children need to learn about sense-making using their intellectual capacity, which is built upon their sensory. An early immersion to smart phones, children will lose the opportunity to think critically by practicing their judgment. Instead, a smart phone equipped child will rely on a virtual person to think for them. They might be misguided. Think of this topic in long-term: Children will have contact with cell phones sooner or later anyway, as a parent you can make a choice for your children to enjoy the time without cell phones as long as possible. This will be probably the only period of time without smart devices in your children’s life, which enables them to enjoy a joyful learning experience by interacting with real people and objects surrounding them. So, defend for your kids to secure this privilege.
See our fast and ready connection to one another, which has us more disconnected than ever before and children are exposed to screen time far beyond the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended amount, which is no more than 1 hour a day-including digital, mobile and television combined. For children 18 months and younger it is not recommended at all - other than video chatting.
Despite these recommendations, cell phone usage by children under the age of 18 has become the norm. Parents have convinced themselves that cell phones are a safety requirement; the world has become a big and dangerous place. Which leaves me often asking, well how did all the generations of kids survive before them? Well, we did. Let me explain how.
- By talking to one another
- Asking permission to do activities in advance and setting up a family schedule
- Setting clear expectations for times when children would not be supervised by an adult but needed to make safe choices
- Knowing our neighbors and members of our neighborhoods personally
- Understanding where safe places were in the community and who could help
This also extends to the news we used to have to wait for - a letter in the mailbox, a returned phone call from a friend or by watching the evening news.
In our shift, away from some of these simple things we have also lost the art of patience and regulation, which gets back to the increases in challenging behaviors we are seeing from children across the nation.
So, should kids have cell phones? If I must answer, then I would advise against it - wait as long as you absolutely can to give them access to this type of communication with their world. Instead, let them be kids - riding their bike over to their friend’s house to see if they can play, heading to the library to learn about what they have questions about, and most importantly, talking to you about how they see their world.
Why Kids Should Have Cell Phones
- "As digital natives, many kids begin using technology at a very young age. Having a cell phone seems to be a natural extension of that. Does that mean a kindergarten student should have one? No. Does it mean it should be automatically ruled out? No. Rather than simply answering no or yes to a child having a cell phone, one must consider the purpose for having it. As kids and society become more technologically savvy, the answer will often be yes, a cell phone will be a benefit for the child."
Jan Urbanski – Director of Safe and Humane Schools in the Institute on Family & Neighborhood Life at Clemson University
- "I think age 9 is a good time for a cell phone—the student is in the 3rd or 4th grade and they are learning about the world. However, it is key for students to be given training around using a cell phone. For example, students should know about turning on/off the cell phone in school as well as lowering or muting the volume of the ringer during classes."
Beth Rosenberg // Director, Tech Kids Unlimited
- "The real issue is not a question of yes or not but instead one of how. In other words, what we should be focusing on is whether young people are using cell phones responsibly and judiciously and how well we are teaching them to do both."
Robert Crosnoe // Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin & President-Elect, Society for Research on Adolescence
Just as we have rules for watching media and playing video games, we can have rules for cell phone usage. Discussing these with children and occasionally negotiating too, helps them develop the internal regulation they need for when you are not around.
Let’s start with a primary pro argument, which is about safety. Parents want and need to keep tabs on their children, and the cell phone is one of the greatest inventions in history for doing so. Many fears that parents have (e.g., “It’s late, and I do not know where my kid is.”), and the day-to-day hassles of parenting (e.g., “How can I let my kid know where to meet me in this crowded mall?) have been greatly reduced by cell phones. Consequently, maybe we should reframe this issue around what is good for parents is a smart move, since what helps parents better manage family life is usually good for their children in a trickle-down effect. True, this pro argument works for cell phone use in general and does not necessarily apply to smartphones, as the ability to talk and text is the key ingredient.
Turning to the primary con argument, there is credible scientific evidence that cell phone use is not good for the brain. This evidence is serious, but it is not just relevant to kids (whose developing brains may be at heightened vulnerability). It is relevant to anyone who uses cell phones. Following the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics about cell phone use for young people, and remembering that they apply to adults too, is a good idea. Another con argument is that young people become obsessed with their cell phones at the expense of “real” social interactions. I am just as annoyed as the next person by a teenager who is obsessively Facebooking and YouTubing when there are actual people present, but teenagers are not alone in that behavior. The judgement that applies to them should apply to all of us, and we need to be the models for appropriate behavior for them.
In sum, the real issue is not a question of yes or not but instead one of how. In other words, what we should be focusing on is whether young people are using cell phones responsibly and judiciously and how well we are teaching them to do both.
In addition to the age and maturity of the child, before making a decision about a cell phone, parents should consider the purpose for the child having one. If a young child simply wants to text with friends, it may not be time to purchase one. If there is a “bring your own device” (BYOD) program at the child’s school, a cell phone can be an important learning tool. With more and more education systems moving to BYOD as an economically efficient way to keep pace with technology, a smartphone is a viable alternative to a laptop or tablet.
One important benefit of a child having a cell phone is keeping in contact with family. Whether involved in sports, extracurricular activities, or home alone after school, a cell phone can be a vital tool for a parent and child to stay connected. In these situations, the expectation that the child always answer when a parent calls or texts can be one of the ground rules set when the child gets the phone. In divorced families, a cell phone may offer a sense of security if the child knows he or she has some control over staying in contact with each parent. You certainly do not want to replace face to face communication between family members but when that is not possible, having a cell phone can be useful.
A frequent worry related to kids and cell phones is cyberbullying. Although certainly a concern, cyberbullying does not happen in a vacuum. If cyberbullying is occurring it is also highly likely that face-to-face bullying is happening as well. Cyberbullying can also happen through any electronic device. To say having a cell phone will increase the rate of cyberbullying greatly oversimplifies the issue and negates the importance of addressing all forms of bullying to keep children safe.
As digital natives, many kids begin using technology at a very young age. Having a cell phone seems to be a natural extension of that. Does that mean a kindergarten student should have one? No. Does it mean it should be automatically ruled out? No. Rather than simply answering no or yes to a child having a cell phone, one must consider the purpose for having it. As kids and society become more technologically savvy, the answer will often be yes, a cell phone will be a benefit for the child.
The real question is what’s the appropriate use of cell phone by kids? In her newest book, “Unselfie,” internationally renowned educational psychologist and author, Dr. Michele Borba, makes the case that there is “a crisis of empathy in our nation.” As she states, “Self-absorption kills empathy, the foundation of humanity and it’s why we must get kids to switch their focus from “I, me, my, mine” to “we, us, our, ours.” One of the four reasons she believes so strongly in this principle is “a plugged in, high pressure culture leads to a mental health epidemic among young people.”
Borba quotes several recent studies and articles in reporting that the average 8-18-year-old stays plugged in to a media device over 7.5 hours per day and this does not count time talking or texting on a cell phone. Seventy-five percent (75%) of children 8 and younger have access to some type of smart phone and preschoolers spend 4.6 hours per day using screen media and almost 40 percent of two-four year olds use a smartphone (Kaiser Foundation, Parents, and USA).
Pew Network - Teens and Technology and Social Media, reports that 88% of teens have a cell phone, ¾’s of teens have or have access to a smart phone, 92% go online daily, “24% almost constantly,” 87% of teens text (average 30 texts per day), 80% use social media and 71% use more than one social networking site.
Sounds like a case against kids having cell phones. Not at all. The bottom line is that kids are plugged in at home, at school, on the road, wherever they are. I have no problem with kids having cell phones.
I find the challenge to be not only with children but with adults as well. The challenge for all of us is to be certain that as families and individuals we are indeed making direct human to human contact with real people in real time. Too much time spent staring at emails, text messages, and playing on social media/networking sites without face to face time is where the problems arise.
Empathy does not happen if people don’t turn things off and connect with each other. I believe that the issue is not the ease of accessibility to information via a smart phone or the phone itself. The issue is us. We must have times to unplug and check in with each other. This requires restraint, assisting our children in the development of key social emotional competencies, and a commitment by all of us that care for children and adolescents to model healthy online behavior and the use of our smartphones.
A couple of final thoughts. Schedule unplugged times. A study by the Kaiser Foundation finds that kids use less digital media in homes with clear digital rules. We all need to check our compulsive need to check our phones. As Borba reminds us, “turn off and tune in.” Appropriate netiquette and behavior is the key issue, not whether kids have cell phones. They are here to stay.
I have studied the impact of media for more than 30 years, have written 7 books on the topic and frequently speak to parent groups around the world. I feel that these guidelines are “theoretically” a good starting point. When it comes to whether a child or preteen should have a cell phone, the decision becomes more complex and the guidelines get blurred. When parents ask me when they should give their child a cell phone, I tell them when the child says that all of her friends are making plans and connecting electronically—usually via text message or social media—then it is time. This usually happens at the junction of the preteen and teenage years but it seems to be happening at younger ages with every passing year.
However, that decision does not mean that a child should have unencumbered, full-time access to a cell phone. My advice is that children should use technology no more than 30 minutes at a sitting and that the ratio of tech time to non-tech time should be 1-to-5, or for every minute of tech time an equivalent 5 minutes of doing something non-technological which will enhance creative play and communication skills. One study showed that 5th graders who spent 5 days without screens at an outdoor camp were better able to identify emotions from facial expressions after camp. As the child ages, the ratio changes and for preteens I advocate a 1-to-1 ratio with no more than 60 minutes at one sitting followed by an equivalent amount of non-tech time. Adolescents flip the ratio to 5-to-1 (no more than 90 minutes at a sitting) as much of their social life and schoolwork is tech-based.
Having asserted these guidelines, the critical issue is parenting. Parents must be vigilant with children of all ages in monitoring how they use their technology. We know from our research that technology use predicts poor health and sleep problems above and beyond any other variables. Children must take breaks from media use to reset and calm their overloaded and easily distracted brain. Instituting tech-free zones (television area, kitchen table, automobile) establishes a standard that says family interaction is more important than tech use.
Setting a good example of not using technology when you are with your children models positive behavior. One hour before bedtime handheld devices should be removed from the bedroom as their light inhibits melatonin necessary for sleep and promotes cortisol, which inhibits sleep. More calming activities should be substituted such as reading a book or listening to familiar music or even watching a familiar television program, all of which require diminished cognition and allow a natural progression toward sleep.
The bottom line is that the decision to provide a cell phone to a child is complicated, and parents should avoid the temptation of allowing handheld technology to babysit and entertain their children. Instead, parents should consider the child’s social needs, limit screen time and emphasize alternative activities that promote creative thinking and communication skills, both of which will serve their children well in their future learning and interactions.
Dr. Rosen is Professor Emeritus and Past Chair of the Psychology Department at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is a research psychologist, computer educator, keynote speaker and is recognized as an international expert in the “Psychology of Technology.” Dr. Rosen’s new book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, written with Adam Gazzaley, came out in Fall 2016.
We need to allow our kids to live in the 21st century age of mass communication.
As an educational technologist, I’m a big believer that technology can be a useful and educational tool for youth—provided that they understand the responsibilities around using a cell phone. And, when I say cell phone—I’m thinking of a smartphone.
I think age 9 is a good time for a cell phone—the student is in the 3rd or 4th grade and they are learning about the world. However, it is key for students to be given training around using a cell phone. For example, students should know about turning on/off the cell phone in school as well as lowering or muting the volume of the ringer during classes.
Cell phones can be terrific around learning apps—downloading a dictionary, a calendar, a weather app, a train and bus map and a calculator are all related to helping a student build independent life skills. And educational apps are amazing. There are so many! A student just told me his alarm is set so that he has to do a math problem—otherwise his alarm won’t go off. TechKidsUnlimited even developed an app called lolaapp.com, which stands for “Laugh Out Loud Aid,” which is a reminder calendar app to help students with daily living skills like remembering to wear deodorant or wiping your face after eating pizza.
But here’s the most important thing around cell phones these days—social media usage. I feel that if a parent or family member is giving a child a smartphone, then they should sit down with them to talk about privacy issues, scams, security and more. Facebook and Instagram can be great—but only if you are a skilled user. These skills need to be taught. Parents or siblings should always be on social media with their child—meaning they should be friended—but not commenting. Cyberbullying is a real problem as is fake news. Technology needs to be taught. Giving a phone to a youth is an educational opportunity—and it should be taken seriously. Giving a phone blindly to a kid and saying—here, this is yours—is not the correct way to give a youth a cell phone.
During school, the students are allowed to use them for school related projects. For example, we recognize that students may have applications on their phones that may be helpful with measuring the velocity of a marble moving down a track in a science class or want to use their high quality phone camera to record and edit a video for a humanities class. We also realize and anticipate that students will at times fall to the temptation of using their phones for uses unrelated to school. We use these teachable moments to remind and help individuals firmly understand why these dynamics are in place.
As Director of Education Technology and in collaboration with the administrative team, we work to weave intentionality, child development, and an evolving world into the fabric of our educational technology program components. Therefore, we are sure to provide both students and families with opportunities to discuss concerns related to cell phone use, as well as with other technologies, before, during, and after school. In sum, we recognize that where the cell phone can be a potentially distractive device, we also realize that with careful program planning, we can recognize the potential for these devices to support students' in their choices of creative and academic resources for learning.
In an ongoing debate whether children, especially those 5 years old or less, should use cell phones, I would argue this based on the notion of cell phone’s contribution to “screen time.” Screen time is the number of minutes a child has with any screen-based technological device, at the expense of physical activity and personal interaction. While children need to learn how to navigate the age of technology, there also is a need to balance individual activities with physical and social interaction. Hence, I believe cell phones are permissible to children, but conditionally and contextually.
Common Sense Media reported that more than half of America’s children 8 years or younger spent more than two hours with screen media. In contrast, the American Academy for Pediatrics advises that children under 3 years old should have no screen time, and older ones have a maximum of 2 hours.
Nevertheless, new studies have shown a different approach to screen time for early learners. Michael Levine and Lisa Guernsey’s book, “Tap, Click, Read,” shows how screen time can be beneficial to children of all ages, but in different contexts. At 0-2 years, a child can interact with screens by looking at photos and talking to relatives via Skype or a simple phone call. This is best done in the company of the parent to distinguish differences and in turn collaborates screen time and physical interaction.
For children more than 2 years old, some screen time can be useful based on the wide range of educational programs and applications available. With the conditions of monitoring the age-appropriate programs and the content of these apps, cell phone use can help in the development of a child’s brain, the authors argue.
Guernsey suggests that screen time and social interaction should go hand in hand to engage with children on the media they interact with through posing questions to them on their interests and creating conversation on their media preferences.
Screen time has become valuable when it is used for academic development and some entertainment. With this I am not in favor of denying kids the use of cell phones totally, but screen time should be moderated so there is also time for physical and social interaction. That would help ensure children develop socially and emotionally without losing themselves in the passiveness that extended screen time allows.
Unfortunately, these back and forth conversations and interactions are happening less and less as the proliferation of smart phones and tablets continues to explode. Parents and children alike are spending more time glued to a screen and consequently less time interacting with each other. When used appropriately, smart phones are a powerful resource that allows us to stay connected with family and friends across the globe and provides us with instant access to endless information and knowledge.
However, the prefrontal cortex which is the area of the brain responsible for self-regulation and control does not finish developing until early adulthood, thus, children have notoriously poor ability to limit their use of attractive games and apps. Without strict adult oversight, children spend excessive amounts of time interacting with their phone and miss out on the critical human interactions that help them develop all the skills they need to become successful, well-adjusted adults.
Additionally, research has demonstrated a link between excessive screen time and attention deficit disorders in children. Although cell phones can be extremely useful for parents in terms of keeping an open line of communication with children when they need a pick up from soccer practice or from a friend’s house, and there are some educational apps that children can use to bolster their literacy and numeracy skills, parents have to take precautions to limit use with these devices. Phone use should be kept mostly to calling or texting, and time spent playing games and apps should be monitored and limited.
Lastly, so called “educational apps” should be vetted by parents using resources like Common Sense Media, which rate games and apps for educational value. Cell phones can be beneficial to parents and children if there are proper structures in place to ensure that overuse isn’t reducing the amount of time children spend interacting with peers and adults which is critical to healthy development.
For me, the main deciding factor is age, which would include age of reason and when a child is old enough to be away from the parent for longer than an hour without another parent being around.
Because so many parents use cell phones to entertain their toddlers, children grow up thinking of one as “entertainment.” This mindset would have to shift. A cell is a tool, not a toy. It’s a privilege/ responsibility to have one.
My daughter was right at the time cell phones became a part of a teenager’s life. I learned a few things:
- I no longer heard all her phone calls or knew who she was talking to.
- Not having a family landline changed my habit of “how to answer a phone politely.” “Harman residence. Gioia speaking. May I ask who’s calling?”
- Children will use a phone to disappear into their room.
- A cell phone should be given when child is around 12 and beginning to do activities with other children – i.e., movies, mall, birthday party. This is for safety and peace of mind / convenience for you.
- Children under 12 should always be with another parent; therefore, having a cell phone isn’t necessary as the parents should communicate directly – unless you want to get a possible series of phone calls about why “someone is not playing with me and I want to come home.”
- A child should always have a phone when they are a driver. Most cars today have hands free ability. Texting is serious and should be discussed at length. The feature can be life saving as proven in recent events. Turning off the feature could be dangerous. Therefore, we can only hope our voices are deep in their head when we’re not there.
- Having a phone comes with responsibility. Losing or breaking a phone would mean not having a phone and not being able to go places where you require them having one until it is replaced. The lost/ broken phone should be replaced by the child with you setting the options of how that can be done – chores, allowance.
- It should be a basic phone for calls only. As the child ages, features can be added.
As the New Year unfolds and children return to school, parents will be under pressure to respond to the daily request for “cellphones… all of my friends have it.” The smartest answer to this question is yes! According to the Census Bureau, 89% of US households have a cellphone. This numbers jumps to over 96% for married households with children and almost 92% for unmarried households with children. Furthermore, almost 70% of households under the age of 30 use only cellphones compared to about 30% of households ages 30 to 64 and 10% for households older than 64 years old. Thus, it is likely that the majority of youth in the US live in a household where the cellphone is the only mode of outside communication and connection.
While one can argue about the potential negatives of giving children cell phones: predatory danger, age, distraction from school, health risk, and cost, to list a few, there are potential benefits that outweigh these negatives. First, there is the basic acceptance about the safety of children having cellphones. Parents know where their children are either by being able to call (hopefully their child answers) or being able to “ping” and locate their child during emergencies. With the various shootings, bombings, and social catastrophes in schools and communities in recent times, having a cellphone has been the one way that parents have been reassured that their child is safe (or unfortunately, that their child is in danger).
Beyond the basics of safety and connecting with love ones, cellphones serve a practical but critical importance for children in a global society. For many who may not have internet access at home, a cellphone, and more precisely a smartphone may be the most economical and flexible way to access information and also be connected to diverse-thinking individuals. As schools become more technologically focused and connected, the need for access to internet and mobile devices, such as smart phones may be even more critical for one’s academic success, and in some instances advantage.
Smartphones, when used safely, effectively and appropriately, are able to replace physical materials such as encyclopedias, dictionaries and textbooks, while simultaneously being able to provide depth and breadth of information in a flexible and individualized platform. This means that ones’ education does not need to solely occur at “any building” public school. It can occur throughout the day, the year, anywhere including on vacation. The various applications and learning platform means that one’s education is limitless. As a developmental psychologist who believes in the plasticity of the brain, the earlier children understand the limitless of information, the more innovative and sustainable our country will become through their ingenuity.
- On average, children are 12.1 years old when they receive their first mobile device.
- 38 percent of children under 2 used a mobile device for media.
- 60 percent of families who have provided a cell phone to their child did so between the ages of 10 and 11. 20 percent provided their 8 to 9 year olds with a cell phone.
- 37 percent of teenagers, ages 13 to 17 have or have access to a smartphone, an increase from 37 percent in 2013. 88 percent of teenagers, ages 13 to 17 have or have access to a cellphone. 91 percent of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, access the internet on cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices at least occasionally.
(Source of data found here).
Therefore, it seems to me it is important to consider the intent of the parents for deciding to provide their child with a cell phone and the responsibility of the parent to ensure the phone benefits the child and will contribute to the intellectual and social-emotional development of their child. I believe cell phones will continue to improve and be more and more beneficial to children, especially if educators are consulted and provide advice about improvements that help develop children's thinking and their opportunity to learn new concepts, increase their vocabulary and deepen their understanding of a variety of concepts.
Some of the decisions parents need to make before providing their child with a cell phone include:
- What is the purpose for providing the child with a cell phone?
- How does the use of the cell phone increase the safety of the child?
- What are the appropriate restrictions and controls that should be on the phone to make sure the child is able to use the phone for the intended purpose and how will the parent monitor the child's activity and use of the phone, to be sure no harm can come to the child?
My qualified ‘Yes’ means that cell phone access for kids should be an informed decision that evaluates their maturity and responsibility level as necessary criteria. Providing access to cell phones also requires time devoted to learning appropriate and inappropriate uses of this technology tool. Parents should not assume that kids will “naturally” use proper etiquette, or understand that all humans have limited attention and working memory ability and that texting while driving or crossing a busy intersection is dangerous. As is true with many other aspects of parenting, limits need to be set and consequences made clear and applied for violating these limits.
Technology that provides access to the world beyond your immediate environment is inherently neither good nor bad. Children need to understand the benefits, risks and dangers of cell phone use and need the maturity and responsibility to use this technology at appropriate times and in appropriate ways as well as safeguard against risks and dangers. Used in appropriate ways to communicate, explore and learn about their world, these tools can be powerful supports for learning.
Why It’s a Situational Decision
- “If the question were whether teens should have cell phones, I would answer yes in most circumstances. However, children are receiving cell phones at younger and younger ages, and I am not a fan of elementary school children owning cell phones. While there is not a magic age or a one-size-fits-all for when a child is ready for a cell phone, there is often little reason to rush toward ownership. While children may very well need access to technology at school, there are a variety of devices (tablets, for example) that can allow internet access without opening a young child up to the continued distraction and pressure to be ‘always available,’ which is what cell phone ownership often demands.”
Patti Agatston // President, International Bullying Prevention Association & Co-author, “Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age”
- "To answer this question, I consulted a 16-year-old who uses her phone extensively for texting and social media. I expected a resounding “yes” from her, but her first reaction was “No, it’s too distracting and addictive.” But then she began to think of the positive uses – ability to reach parents easily, consulting with friends about homework, etc. - and she concluded that it’s a complicated question. I agree. The answer varies by the age of children and their needs."
Joan W. Almon // Co-founder and Director of Programs, Alliance for Childhood
- "It depends on a multitude of factors. For example, how old is the child? A two-year-old does not need a cell phone, but a six-year-old might. So now ask yourself why does the child need a phone? If s/he is a child that is left alone often either at home or at series of scheduled practices/events, having such a tool can be quite handy for the family as well as make everyone feel safe. If having a phone is simply a fashion, social, or economic statement, I would say no."
Christopher P. Brown // Professor of Education, University of Texas at Austin
Possibly because of that fear, parents are buying young children these devices in record numbers. Researchers at Common Sense Media found that the number of children who used mobile devices nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013. What’s more, a new study just completed at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) surveyed 4,584 students in grades 3, 4 and 5 between 2014 and 2016. In this study, I found that almost half of these 8-11 year olds reported owning their own cell phone. More than 49% of each gender reported ownership, but fifth graders were more likely to be owners (60%) compared to third graders (40%). This meant that the 20% rate I had found among third graders in 2011 had doubled in the past 5 years.
What’s more, it appears that contrary to impressions, cell phones may actually increase some dangers, especially for young children. For example, this new study found that owning a cell phone significantly increased the chance that an elementary-school child would become involved in cyberbullying, either as a victim or as a bully. For example, 12% of third grade cell phone owners reported being victims of cyberbullying, compared to 7% of non-owners. Across all grades and genders, more cell phone owners admitted to cyberbullying. Third graders were more than twice as likely to report being cyberbullies if they owned a cellphone (9% of owners versus 4% of non-owners). Fourth and fifth grade cellphone owners showed the same pattern (in both grades, 7% of owners admitted cyberbullying compared to 4% of non-owners).
Other factors were also studied – like the relationship between owning a cell phone and bullying in school – and overall, one clear finding was that the pattern of bullying and cell phone ownership was stronger among the younger children. This isn’t a great surprise. Younger children often have less experience with devices and are given less education about Internet safety and citizenship in school. That lack of education, combined with a powerful digital device, would set the stage for the increase in cyberbullying that I observed.
So should you get your child a cell phone? If they’re in elementary school, it may be wise to wait, unless there are very specific safety concerns. By waiting until your child gains a little maturity, experience and education, you may help them avoid damaging or even traumatic social conflict and victimization.
You might have heard that cell phones cause brain cancer and this is especially bad for children. The idea is that cell phones emit radiation, radiation causes cancer, and kids' heads are small and squishy so they get more radiation. Should we worry? The biology of cancer is complicated, but the physics of cell phone radiation is extremely well understood and there is no way it can cause cancer.
First, we need to clarify that cell phone radiation is electromagnetic radiation (it has nothing to do with nuclear radiation). Other examples are x-rays, radio waves, microwaves, and visible light. Electromagnetic radiation interacts with matter by bouncing off of charged particles, mostly electrons in the outer orbits of atoms and molecules. Light is absorbed by a brick because the brick is dense with electrons that love to interact with visible light. Glass is transparent because the electrons that help make it up do not play well with visible light.
Some electromagnetic radiation can cause cancer. This is the reason your dental assistant leaves the room when she x-rays your sore tooth and why you are asked to wear a lead apron. Ultraviolet radiation is also dangerous because it can cause skin cancer. This might be familiar to you as the "UVA" or "UVB" radiation mentioned on bottles of sunscreen.
Visible light, on the other hand, is safe. That is why we can sit all day under office lights (that emit visible light but very little UV) without tanning and with no danger of getting skin cancer. Similarly, glass is a good absorber of UV radiation, which is why beach-goers get raccoon eyes after wearing sunglasses all day. Not only is the raccoon skin safe from cancer, but the eyes are protected from UV radiation that can cause cataracts.
Why are x-rays and UV radiation dangerous while visible light is not? The answer has to do with the nature of light and of our DNA. Cancer happens when the normal functioning of DNA goes awry and cells start to reproduce in an uncontrolled way. It is not easy to make DNA run amok because it takes a threshold of energy to disrupt biological molecules. X-rays and UV radiation are dangerous because the energy they carry is above this threshold. Visible light is not dangerous because its energy is below the threshold. In fact all visible light does is heat up tissue - something you are also familiar with when you lie on the beach.
What about cell phones? They emit radiation with energy that is about one million times below the disruption threshold - there is no way they can cause cancer for anyone, child or adult. Japanese monsters? That's another matter.
Until children are able to responsibly communicate and navigate the digital world, they should not have their own smartphone. Even when they acquire these skills, they should only begin carrying a phone if parents continue to have ongoing conversations about their children’s activities, friendships and media use. These conversations, not just location tracking and social media monitoring, will keep children safe in both the real and digital worlds.
It can feel challenging as a parent to determine when a child is old enough for a smartphone, because mobile phones are no longer just for calls — they are mini computers that enable us to communicate in myriad ways with friends and family and also with the world. In addition, many of us use our phones for research, entertainment, and organizing our work and home life. Parents might feel like they can do anything as long as they have their phone. Children see this power as they watch us go about our days. They grow up understanding that one small device can offer many opportunities to play, explore and communicate. No wonder they are begging from a young age for one of their own.
As a family, consider some important questions as you decide whether the time is right for your child to own a smartphone:
- Why do you think your child is or isn’t ready for a smartphone?
- What would be positive aspects of your child having a smartphone? What concerns do you have about your child owning one?
- Can your child have a phone conversation with you and communicate responsibly and consistently using text messaging?
- Do you think your child can take care of the phone, know when to put it away, and know when silence the ringer and other alert sounds?
- How would you respond if your child doesn’t answer your call or text message?
- Will the phone have a data plan? Does your child understand how data plans work?
- Who will be in control of internet access and what apps are installed?
- Will you have all your child’s passwords?
- Will location settings be enabled on apps and the phone? Why or why not?
- What social media apps and games is your child interested in? Have you looked at them together? What do you each like and dislike about them?
- Does your child understand cyberbullying and online harassment and how to handle an uncomfortable digital situation? Do you?
- What should your child do in an emergency?
- What hours will your child not be allowed to use their phone and where it will be stored during “off hours”?
In the case of cell phones, it depends on a multitude of factors. For example, how old is the child? A two-year-old does not need a cell phone, but a six-year-old might. So now ask yourself why does the child need a phone? If s/he is a child that is left alone often either at home or at series of scheduled practices/events, having such a tool can be quite handy for the family as well as make everyone feel safe. If having a phone is simply a fashion, social, or economic statement, I would say no.
For my children, answering questions like these led my wife and I to decide that our children could get a phone when they turned 13.
Still, if and when decide to say “yes,” there are many more issues that you are going to have to be ready to address. For instance, what type of phone do you want to buy—cheap or expensive. You’ll also have to think about when s/he can use it and how as well (e.g., textinghow much? To whom? What for?, and so on). If the phone has web access, how will you allow the child to use it and for how long each day? Also, can s/he be on social media? If so, which sites? Will you make them friend you, and can s/he make/accept other friend requests?
If you say “yes,” having answers to these types of questions is essential. When buying a child a cell phone, you have to be ready to accompany her/him into the larger social world these devises bring her/him into. This includes you having to set limits and instill consequences (such as taking the phone away) if the child cannot abide by the agreed upon terms.
So the answer is not simply yes, it really just depends.
- monitor activities,
- set and enforce clear rules,
- model the phone-related behavior that you expect of your kids, and
- engage kids in ongoing conversations about what they do with their phone,
- A phone is sort of like a pet – there are ongoing responsibilities that accompany the benefits. If you are still worried about your child losing their mittens, then they probably aren’t mature enough to keep track of a phone.
- Just because a kid wants a phone doesn’t mean they actually need one. Invite them to make their best case to you. The ensuing conversation should give you a chance to make sure that what you expect your child to do with their phone and what they expect to do with it are the same.
- Phones and their various functions are an ongoing expense. If your child isn’t willing to shoulder part of the financial cost, even in a token way, then the gift might be premature.
- Cyber safety is a must. You wouldn’t hand over the car keys to a child who had never demonstrated that they could drive. Likewise, before letting your kid walk out of the house with their own phone, check that they know:
- your rules and the consequences for breaking them
- basic etiquette about getting people’s permission to take or share photos
- how to keep their information private (except from you, of course!)
- how to spot misleading marketing techniques, e.g., in app purchases, pop-up ads, clickbait, and scam phone calls
- what to do / where to find support if they are cyberbullied or friended by strangers who get a bit too “friendly”
- the automatic, no negotiation deal breakers: The phone is taken away if they use it in ways that might harm themselves or others (e.g., texting and driving, sexting, cyberbullying, disrupting school classes, not getting enough sleep because they’re staying up at night to use the phone, etc.).
Birth to seven: Young children need to become adept at three-dimensional, multi-sensory engagement with the people and world around them. They need to develop skills in self-expression through language, the arts, movement, and play. Cell phones at this age distract from these essentials by providing endless games and entertainment. Moving through the digital world one-finger flick at a time is the exact opposite of how young children really learn, which is through full body, hands-on interaction. The simple answer: No cell phones at this age unless communicating with distant family via skype.
Seven to twelve: The biggest argument for cell phones at this age is to stay in touch with parents as children begin to move more freely in the world. That can be fine, but let the phone “belong” to the parent, who collects it when the child returns home. These are the years when children build strong relations with friends. Texting to arrange meetings can help. Texting that keeps eyes down and away from real relationships hinders. As children enter the world of cell phone usage they will need help and steady guidance by family and schools.
Twelve and up: These are the years when you’ll probably want to give your children their own phones, but only when they show they can be responsible and follow the guidelines you establish, such as how much texting and social networking they can do, and at what time the phone gets turned off at night. Phone ownership does not have to be an all-or-nothing experience. There can be a series of milestones as your child shows their ability to be a responsible user.
A final tip: Children learn through imitation. It’s a huge help if parents model good phone usage and not allow themselves to be distracted. Nowadays, I hear as many complaints from children about their parents being caught up with phones and other digital devices as I hear from parents about their children being hooked on them.
Providing kids a cell phone in today’s modern and highly technological era is inevitable. How parents, caretakers and adults monitor and strategically guide kids’ use of cell phones cannot be more underlined, in terms of shaping appropriate use of any tool with high levels of access to information that may not be appropriate for children/kids.
As an early childhood educator, I believe there is no technological device that can replace the power of direct human contact and complex interactions that children need to develop strong communication skills. I ask how can we increase our access to complex interactions, which can foster social and emotional skills that support kids to make better and more informed decisions in an age of cell phones?
Image: g-stockstudio / iStock.
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