What Age Should a Child Get a Smartphone: Pros and Cons of Early Phone Use

What Age Should a Child Get a Smartphone: Pros and Cons of Early Phone Use
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Smartphone addiction is real. It’s called “nomophobia” or the fear of being without a mobile phone. It can be hard to overcome this addiction in an era where internet use has become ubiquitous. So, naturally, parents are concerned about children having smartphones and often wonder what age should a child get a smartphone.

The smartphone offers unfettered access to the internet and the good things and dangers that come with it. The challenge for parents is to determine when their kids are old enough to absorb the benefits while sidestepping all the negativities. This article seeks to shed more light on the right age to give kids their own smartphones.

What Age Should a Child Get a Smartphone Table of Contents

  1. The Average Age Kids Get Their Own Smartphones
  2. Impact of Smartphone Use on Different Age Brackets
  3. Disadvantages of Exposing Kids to Phones Too Early
  4. Reasons Why Kids Should Have Phones
  5. Ways to Guide Kids’ Smartphone Use

The Average Age Kids Get Their Own Smartphones

According to a recent study by Common Sense Media, 53% of kids in the United States have their own smartphones by age 11 (Victoria & Michael, 2019). The same study found out that by the age of 12 years, more than a third of kids have their own smartphones. This age is poised to trend even younger in the coming years. Worried parents cannot help but wonder, should there be an age limit on cell phones?

Research suggests that there should be an age limit. But in reality, there are no legal guidelines to determine when parents should hand smartphones to their little one. As such, buying your child a smartphone should be a well-thought and meticulous decision.

On the one hand, many find it risky to let children have their own phone. After all, parental controls can only do so much to protect kids from applications and websites that they should not be exposed to. On the other hand, the use of smartphones can help reinforce schooling. In fact, interactive learning statistics revealed that 44% of parents in the United Kingdom believe its rapid access is a major boost for kid’s education.

The bottom line here is that there are many advantages and disadvantages to smartphone use. It will be up to you as a parent or guardian to weigh whether there are more pros than cons or the other way around.

 

Impact of Smartphone Use on Different Age Brackets

Among the ways to determine whether your child is old enough to have a phone is to understand its impact on their growth and development. Below, we have culled some data on smartphone use among the different age brackets and analyzed how it can affect them in the long-run.

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Ages Four to Six

At this age, kids learn best from live, immersive interaction with parents, siblings/agemates, or caregivers. Given the choice, they would briskly opt for playing, talking, or being read to instead of using a smartphone (Mary, Courage, & Mark, 2010).

Smartphones at a young age deny a child the opportunity to learn social skills from face-to-face interactions with human beings. Ultimately, this makes it difficult for them to develop empathy and read facial expressions. Even worse, constant over-stimulation from smartphone screens is damaging to the brain. It causes the child’s brain to become hardwired to crave easy dopamine from an early age.

For this reason, the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) recommends keeping children below the age of two away from digital screens of any form. It is also recommended that parents limit children between the age of two to five years to less than one hour of screen time a day (CPS, 2017).

Ages Seven to 11

By this time, children are starting to enjoy independence from their parents. They spend most of their time in school and engage in extracurricular activities after school. Because of this, parents feel obliged to hand their children a smartphone to keep in touch when they are away. This is the reason why, in the U.S., 40% of children are introduced to smartphone use at the age of five to 11 (Pew Research Center, 2020).

Source: Pew Research Center

This is a wise move, but it has a caveat. Children might slide into social media use without their parents’ consent. This poses a serious risk because at this age, the kids’ critical-thinking skills have not kicked in yet. This means they do not understand the essence of posting things on social media or how to respond to the negativity that comes with it.

The kids will be exposed to cyberbullying and the over-reliance on peer validation on social media, which can have a negative impact on their development. To be on the safe side, Common Sense Media advises parents to opt for phones with limited features and no web access for young children and closely supervise their use (Common Sense Media, n.d.).

Ages 12 to 14

Based on child development, children at these ages are transitioning to middle schools, and this is the time many feel entitled to own a smartphone and have access to educational websites for kids, and rightfully so. At this age, most adolescents have developed vital skills, such as problem-solving, impulse control, and critical thinking.

In addition, 73% of parents in the U.S. think it is acceptable for children above the age of 12 years to own a smartphone (Pew Research Center, 2020). But remember, not all kids are the same, and one’s age does is not a reflection of maturity and responsibility level.

Therefore, while most adolescents are ready for supervised smartphone use, some might still be lagging behind in terms of the level of maturity. To evaluate your child’s readiness, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your child asking for a smartphone for safety reasons or purely social ones?
  • Is the kid ready to wrap his head around the idea of limits to apps downloaded and minutes talked?
  • Is the kid mature enough to use the photo, video, and text functions responsibly, not to text during class, or disturb others with conversations?

The founders of mobile technology underscore the need to wait until children are old enough before handing them a smartphone. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple reportedly barred his children from using the iPad when it was released because they were young. You can borrow a leaf from Steve Jobs and wait until the kid is mature enough to possess a smartphone.

Ages 14 to 18

Around this age, a kid’s prefrontal cortex is nearly fully developed. The prefrontal cortex controls cognitive functions such as decision-making, perception, learning, and language ability. It can influence the acquisition of knowledge, reasoning, impulse suppression, planning, and organization.

Most kids in this age group are ready to own a smartphone. The idea to let kids in this age group have their smartphones is echoed by Bill Gates. The tech giant co-founder did not let his children own a smartphone until they attained the age of 14 years (Inc). On the other hand, James Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media, said in an interview with the New York Times that he would wait until his kids are in high school before handing them a smartphone (Chen, 2016).

That said, high schoolers are still unpredictable and giving them unsupervised internet access can be a detriment to their development and that of their peers. Therefore, it is important to model and teach them good smartphone habits. Parents should also set time when there is no screen time, such as during dinner or bedtime to ensure children are getting enough sleep.

 

Disadvantages of Exposing Kids to Phones Too Early

Parents give their kids a smartphone for different reasons. While some feel a smartphone is a necessity to stay in contact with the kids, others see it as a way to keep kids entertained. Besides, some parents want to help kids stay in touch with their buddies. Interestingly, 40% of parents in the U.S. give their children smartphones to enjoy peace and quiet (Sellcell, 2019).

Whatever the need, parents should ensure that they give their children smartphones at the right age. This is because exposing the kid to phones too early does not bode well for the child’s growth and development. Some of the dangers of letting a kid use a phone too early include:

  • Alters Brain Development. On average, children between 8 and 12 years old in the U.S. spend 4 hours and 44 minutes on the screen daily (Victoria & Michael, 2019). 31% of this time is spent on mobile gaming. Spending too much time on a digital screen impacts the brain development of the child. For starters, extended screen time can physically alter the brain. It results in a premature thinning of the cortex, which leads to lower cognitive skills (National Institute of Health, 2018).
  • Impairs Social Skills Development. If a child spent more time on a smartphone than interacting with humans, their social skills development will be impaired (Scientific American, 2015). It can also prohibit the development of critical thinking, impulse control, and problem-solving skills.
  • Exposes Kids to the Dark World of the Web. Smartphones offer unfettered access to the internet. When kids are allowed to use them unmonitored they can easily end up being redirected to inappropriate content without the parents’ knowledge. There is potential exposure to nudity and violence, all of which could come to haunt the child later in life. The kids can also access sites that promote over-reliance on peer validation, hence creating a way for cyberbullying, which in turn, causes the kids to feel rejected or ostracized.
  • Technology addiction at an early age. Too much screen time can cause overstimulation and lead to the production of adrenaline dopamine, which makes them highly addictive (Dresp-Langley, 2020). Technology addiction leads to depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide (Abi-Jaoude, Naylor, & Pignatiello, 2020). It also causes kids to have a low concentration in class and can greatly undermine family relationships.

Reasons Why Kids Should Have Phones

A smartphone, as you know, is a gateway to inappropriate content and a lot of scary stuff associated with the web. But with a strong parental hand controlling device use, it does have perks. Some of the benefits of kids having phones include:

Source: Pew Research Center

  • Easy to track them. One good thing about smartphones is that they come with GPS apps or software. These solutions help parents monitor the movement of their children. In fact, 33% of parents in the U.S. say they use a smartphone to track their children’s location (Pew Research Center, 2020). The apps can also help children trace their way back home if they are lost or are in dangerous situations.
  • Helps keep pace with Technology. Children need to be tech-savvy to succeed in school and in future jobs. Giving them smartphones at an early age helps them interact regularly with technology. This makes them comfortable with technology and gives them the skills they need to excel even as technology advances.
  • Helps Create Indelible Memories. Smartphones come with powerful front and rear cameras. These devices give children the opportunity to take photos of things, hence create beautiful memories. In particular, when the child is on holiday with other family members he/she will capture every moment in photos and keep them forever.
  • Aid their Education. Smartphones are not just for fun or for kids to communicate with parents and connect with friends. They are also academically beneficial. In fact, 53% of parents in the U.S. give their children smartphones to help them with education (Sellcell, 2019). If kids are learning from home, for example during today’s pandemic, they can download some of the best educational apps for kids. With these apps, children can start learning a new language, improve their math skills, and more.

Ways to Guide Kids’ Smartphone Use

Responsible smartphone use for children is about four things: managing mobile costs, keeping the smartphone safe, being respectful, and sticking to family rules. Regardless of the age you give the kid a smartphone, you must teach them how to tick all these boxes.

The following are some suggestions for teaching children responsible smartphone use:

  • First and foremost, create a family contract that outlines smartphone rules and stipulates the consequences of breaking the rules. The contract should clearly state what for, where, when, and how much the child can use a smartphone.
  • Parents should model healthy and responsible phone use themselves. To start with, a parent should think about their own technology use. If, for example, parents do not want children to use smartphones during family meals or other activities, they should set a great example for the child.
  • Start by giving the kid a cell phone that does not have internet access, and introduce them to smartphones as they grow more responsible.
  • To promote safe and respectful use, parents should set the parental controls on the smartphone. They should also check all apps that use location services and switch off unnecessary ones.
  • Parents should discourage their children from sharing personal details online or accepting social media friend requests from people they do not know face-to-face.
  • Most importantly, warn the child against creating or forwarding humiliating or nasty photos, emails, or text messages.
  • Finally, reduce the amount of time the kids spend in front of the screen.

Is it Time for Your Kid to Have a Smartphone?

A smartphone is an indispensable device that embodies the digital age. As mobile technology evolves, there is no doubt smartphones will continue to change the way we live. It is redefining parenting and one tricky question parents are facing today is, at what age should a child get a smartphone?

As you have already seen, there is no definitive answer to this question. The onus is on the parent to decide when the time is right to hand their kid a smartphone. Ideally, or as we have seen tech founders do, the right age to give a child a smartphone is when they attain the age of 14 years.

However, this is not a rule that is set in stone. If a parent deems it right to wait until the child is 16 years, it is up to him or her. But whatever the age, parents must ensure that they are doing it for the right reasons. They should not cave in to pressure to give the child a smartphone because they want them to be tech-savvy or because their friends are doing it. To be on the safe side, formulate your own rules, and stick to them to a tee.

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References:

  1. Abi-Jaoude, E., Naylor, K.T., & Pignatiello, A. (2020). Smartphones, social media use and youth mental health. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 192 (6), E136–E141. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.190434
  2. CPS Digital Health Task Force (2017). Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in the digital world. Paediatrics & Child Health, 22 (8), 461–468. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/pxx123
  3. Chen, B.X. (2016). What’s the right age for a child to get a smartphone? The New York Times.
  4. Common Sense Media (2020) What’s the best cell phone for kids. Cellphone Parenting. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.
  5. Dresp-Langley, B. (2020). Children’s health in the digital age. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17 (9), 3240. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17093240
  6. Mary, L., Courage, & Mark, L. (2010). To watch or not to watch: Infants and toddlers in a brave new electronic world. Developmental Review, 30 (2), 101-115. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2010.03.002
  7. Melanie, C. (n.d). Bill Gates says this is the ‘safest’ age to give a child a smartphone. Inc.com.
  8. NIH (2018). Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.
  9. Auxier, B., Anderson, M., & Turner, E. (2020, July 28). 1. Children’s engagement with digital devices, screen time. Parenting Children in the Age of Screens. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  10. Valdesolo, P.  (2015). Scientists study nomophobia — Fear of being without a mobile phone. Scientific American.
  11. Sellcell (July 15, 2019). Kids Cell Phone Use Survey 2019 – truth about kids and phones. Sellcell.com.
  12. Victoria, R., & Michael, B. R. (2019). The Common Sense Census: media use by tweens And teens. Common Sense Media.

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