Smart Phone – when do we give one to the kids?
Not long ago, many parents wondered at what age they should give their child full access to the car keys. Nowadays, parents face a trickier question: At what age should a child own a smartphone?
The smartphone, after all, is the key to unfettered access to the internet and the many benefits and dangers that come with it. But unlike driving a car, which is legal in some states starting at the age of 16, there is no legal guideline for a parent to determine when a child may be ready for a smartphone.
The topic is being increasingly debated as children get smartphones at an ever younger age. On average, children are getting their first smartphones around age 10, according to the research firm Influence Central down from age 12 in 2012. For some children, smartphone ownership starts even sooner — including second graders as young as 7, according to internet safety experts. And the thinking is that age is going to trend even younger, because parents are getting tired of handing their smartphones to their kids.
The downward age creep is meeting resistance. James Steyer, chief executive ofCommon Sense Media - a non-profit organization that reviews content and products for families - has a strict rule for his family: His children get a smartphone only when they start high school — after they have learned restraint and the value of face-to-face communication.
But Mr. Steyer added that other parents might decide that their children are ready sooner. No two kids are the same, and there’s no magic number. A kid’s age is not as important as his or her own responsibility or maturity level.
So how do you determine the right time? The research results will not please smartphone makers: The longer you wait to give your children a smartphone, the better. Some experts said 12 was the ideal age, while others said 14. All agreed later was safer because smartphones can be addictive distractions that detract from schoolwork while exposing children to various negative influences.
“The longer you keep Pandora’s box shut, the better off you are,” said Jesse Weinberger, an internet safety speaker based in Ohio who gives presentations to parents, schools and law enforcement officials. “There’s no connection to the dark side without the device.”
Ms. Weinberger, who wrote the smartphone and internet safety book The Boogeyman Exists: And He’s in Your Child’s Back Pocket, said she had surveyed 70,000 children in the last 18 months and found that, on average, sexting began in the fifth grade, pornography consumption began when children turned 8, and pornography addiction began around age 11.
In a separate study published this year, Common Sense Media polled 1,240 parents and children and found 50 percent of the children admitted that they were addicted to their smartphones. It also found that 66 percent of parents felt their children used mobile devices too much, and 52 percent of children agreed. About 36 percent of parents said they argued with their children daily about device use.
There is also biology to consider. The prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that controls impulse, finishes developing in the mid-20s. In other words, parents should not be surprised if younger children with smartphones lack impulse control.
Smartphones undoubtedly bring benefits. With the devices, children gain access to powerful apps, including education tools for studying, chat apps for connecting with friends and the wealth of information on the web.
But they also are one step closer to distracting games, sexting apps and social media apps where online bullies are on the prowl. In the end, such cons may outweigh the pros, Ms. Weinberger said. If you hold off giving smartphones to children, many still have access to technology tools through devices like computers and tablets, she added. The main difference with a smartphone is that it is with a child everywhere, including outside of parental supervision.
Ultimately, parents will determine when their child truly needs a smartphone. When that time comes, there are approaches for testing the waters before handing one to the child.
When you decide that it’s time to bestow a smartphone on your child, there are ways to set limits. To help parents enforce rules consistently, Ms. Weinberger has published a family contract listing the rules of smartphone use, which includes promises never to take nude selfies and never to try to meet strangers from the internet in real life. Parents state what the consequences are for breaking the rules, and the child must sign the contract before receiving a smartphone.
Mr. Steyer of Common Sense Media said he set other limits, like no smartphones at the dinner table and no phones in the classroom or in the bedroom at night. If his children break the rules, he takes their phones away.
There are some phone settings that can help keep children safe when they do get smartphones.
For iPhones, Apple offers a switchboard full of features that parents can enable or disable, including the ability to restrict the Safari browser from gaining access to adult content and the ability to prevent apps from using cellular data. The iPhone’s parental controls are to be found inside the Settings app in a menu labelled Restrictions.
Android phones lack similar built-in parental control settings, though there are many apps in the Google Play app store that let parents add restrictions. Ms. Weinberger highlighted the app Qustodio which lets parents monitor their children’s text messages, disable apps at certain times of day or even shut off a smartphone remotely. While that can be an aggressive approach to restricting a child’s smartphone, Ms. Weinberger said her job as a parent was not to make her children like her.
“My only job as a parent is to prepare you for the day you leave,” she said. “If that’s the case, I have to keep you safe, and you’re not going to like some of the things I say — and that’s O.K.”