Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?

By Catherine Gregory

Getting your child a cell phone can offer a peace of mind by providing a direct link to them anytime, anywhere. But deciding when (or if) your child should have a phone is tricky territory. Once kids have a smartphone, they own a powerful communication and media production tool they may not be responsible enough to handle.

Experts agree that if you think your kid’s technological savvy is greater than their ability to use a smartphone wisely, pay attention to the gap. You may need to say, “No, not yet.” Or test the waters with a basic phone without a camera, internet access or games to see if your child can be responsible with their phone use.

The peer pressure to have a cell phone is real and growing. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, twice as many children had cell phones in 2010 as they did in 2004. According to the survey, most teens—85 percent of those aged 14 to 17—had cell phones; so did 69 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds, and 31 percent of kids aged 8 to 10. Given the fast-changing mobile landscape and increasing popularity of smartphones, the number of kids with smartphones has undoubtedly grown since then.

Now, Later or Never?

The following considerations may help you decide whether or not your child is a candidate for a cell phone:

  • Does your child travel alone? If your child travels alone from place to place, a cell phone can be a great safety tool in case of emergency or just to know they have arrived safely at their destination. However, if they still carpool and are not spending time alone, a phone may not be necessary.
  • Does your child tend to lose things, such as backpacks, lunchboxes or homework folders? If so, expect they might also lose an expensive phone.
  • Does your child live in two households? If you are divorced or living apart from your child’s other parent, a cell phone can be a good way to stay connected—without having to go through your ex.
  • Would having easy access to friends benefit them for social reasons? Tweens and teens often enjoy using texting and social media on smartphones as a way to communicate with friends. If your child is having a hard time making friends face to face, cell phones provide another option for social interaction.
  • Are they mature enough to use text, photo and video functions responsibly and to not embarrass or harass others? Most experts agree that age doesn’t matter as much as maturity level here.
  • Can your child adhere to limits and follow the house rules you set for phone use? Sometimes the answer to this question is only learned by trial and error. (See the sidebar below for establishing healthy smartphone habits.)

Establishing Healthy Smartphone Habits

If you do decide to get a smartphone for your kid, here are some helpful tips for keeping your child safe, from the Center on Child Health and Media at Boston’s Children’s Hospital.

  • Monitor your child’s social media usage. Many social media accounts require users to be at least 13 years old. Parents should set ground rules and monitor their children’s social media use to avoid cyber bullying (social harassment) and sharing harmful or private content. Help your child set up their account and passwords and let them know you will be checking their use of the apps.
  • Set time limits on texting and social media use. There isn’t a lot of research yet on how cell phones affect mental and emotional health, but early studies show that frequent texting and emailing can disrupt kids’ concentration. It can also become compulsive if kids start being “on call” 24/7 to keep up with their friends. Decide what time limits work best for your family, and most importantly, be consistent about upholding them.
  • Limit your child’s exposure to cellular radiation. Smartphones, like other small-screen devices, emit radiation and may impact sleep patterns and even healthy brain development. Although the research on cell phone EMF (electromagnetic field) exposure is limited, most experts recommend using ear buds instead of holding the phone up to your ear, and not keeping the phone next to your body, like in a pocket.
  • Promote good sleeping habits. The light from cell phone screens can disrupt your child’s circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Set phone curfews, such as no screens one hour or more before bedtime. To prevent sleep distractions, do not allow the phone in the child’s bedroom. If your child uses their phone as an alarm, buy them a regular alarm clock and charge the phone overnight in another room.
  • Choose smart games and music. Guide your child to choose music that has healthy messages and encourage them to think critically about the lyrics of their favorite songs. Some video games foster social and physical development; so encourage games that require working with others to accomplish a goal or that get them up and moving.
  • Balance your media use. Adults can get sucked down the smartphone rabbit hole too. Make sure to have media-free times during your day and set consistent limits to balance your child’s use of media and non-media activities. Remember, your child will learn directly from your own cell phone habits. Be a good role model.

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