Cell phones and smartphones have taken over our lives. Almost every adult has some type of cell phone, and millions of adults use them daily. It should come as no shock to any parent or guardian that even young children will ask for their own cell phone or smartphone. At this age, they want to play with whatever YOU are playing with. Modeling their own behaviors after your behaviors is quite natural and normal. You always have a phone out – or “your toy” out – and they want to play with the toy, too!
While the “I want to play, too” dynamic may extend into later years, ‘tweens and older children often desire a cell phone for different reasons than young children. Many of those reasons, however, may not be terribly different from your own. Again, some older children will see them for their recreational value – as do we all. Some may want to use them at their “job” in life (i.e. school) – as do many of us. Some see them as a way to increase social activity – and you may recognize that fact as you “Like” us on Facebook right now. Finally, some children may even see the value in having a consistent lifeline to you as their primary caregiver – and we all feel safer driving with a cell phone in the car, don’t we? This last point can be especially important if they are experiencing some form of bullying, abuse, or neglect in their lives.
Unfortunately, providing all of your children with a phone – and at any age – is also clearly not the correct choice. Smartphones with Internet access can lead to all sorts of problems. See our article, “The Internet and Your Children’s Safety” for a review. While they may help during in-person bullying situations, smartphones can also open the doors to cyberbullying (as a victim or as the cyber bully.) In addition, some question the potential risks that could occur if children have prolonged exposure to the microwave radiation (MWR) that is emitted from cell phones. Some researchers have stated that children and unborn babies face a greater risk for bodily damage that results from MWR given off by wireless devices. Other researchers have stated that cell phone use can lead to shorten attention spans or disturb sleep patterns.
So what’s the correct age to provide your child with a cell phone or smartphone? Unfortunately, there is no “one” right answer that applies to all families and all children of a certain age. Regardless of the age, a parent or guardian should begin by asking the following types of questions:
- Is your child often impulsive? Would s/he understand and respect the time and usage limits you would place on their phone? Do they honor time/usage restraints you currently have about video games or television?
- Does your child have unique medical needs? Might s/he need the phone to stay connected with you due to potential emergency situations?
- Does your child already express a clear understanding on how they can use the Internet safely?
- Does your child express an understanding of how to use your landline phone safely and appropriately? Do they know not to reveal personal information over the phone? Do they understand that they should never agree to meet up with someone they’ve met over the phone? Do they take care of the phone (i.e., they don’t slam it down, get it covered in dirt or emerged in water, etc.)?
Most importantly, and should you decide to consider buying a cell phone or smartphone for your child, be sure to do two things. Check in with your service provider to see what plans they have particularly for children or teenagers. Second, as with all parenting, recognize that this is a big step for your child and that it requires a lot of conversation, listening, understanding, patience, and clarity…for everyone.