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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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
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:
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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