I spend the majority of my days associating with an amazing group of ninth graders. That’s the life of a junior high teacher. My students are funny, sincere, a little quirky, and a joy to be around (most days). But it’s not an exaggeration to say that they make me a little crazy with their phone use in the classroom; it’s a constant problem—constant! And it’s led me to consider what impact this incessant phone use is having on our kids.
Very few parents these days have personal experience growing up with a cell phone in their hands. For most of us, cell phones came into vogue long after our preschool days. So, trying to navigate raising young (and older) kids in the tech age is often an exercise in trial and error. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we need to adjust.
If you’re still on the fence about the wisdom of allowing your kids to enter the personal cell phone arena, check out what the experts have to say about children and cell phone use.
Should Children Use Mobile Phones?
Should we allow or encourage our young kids to use cell phones? According to several sources, the short answer is no—at least not right away and not without limits. As useful as cell phones are, they can have adverse effects on our young kids. According to an article on Mashable, kids are getting cell phones at younger and younger ages. The article points out that Wait Until Eighth, a platform dedicated to encouraging parents to wait until eighth grade to allow kids to have phones, states that “childhood smartphone usage can impact adolescent brain development, impair sleep, negatively impact social relationships, and increase anxiety and depression risk.”
Michael Cheng, a child and family psychiatrist at Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, warns that too much screen time for very young children could damage brain development and stunt social and emotional health. Another study analyzing problematic phone use across different age groups found that excessive phone use can cause preoccupation with phone use (significantly higher in children 3–11 years old), mood swings, increased tolerance for extensive phone use, negative feelings, conflicts with others, and addictive behavior.
The research suggests that children and cell phone use—at least unlimited phone use for young kids—is not a match made in heaven. As parents, we should be cautious and judicious when giving our kids access to these enticing little screens.
So what are the guidelines for phones at different ages? When is it best to get our kids a phone and how much phone use is too much?
Guidelines for Phone Use at Different Ages
Today’s Parent offers some great guidelines for phone use at different ages. Here’s what they have to say.
Ages Four to Six
When it comes to our youngest children, the recommendations are clear: “Kids in this age group shouldn’t be using smartphones (or other mobile devices), period.” Rather, they suggest spending quality face-to-face time and teaching social skills, empathy, and facial cues. There is no substitute for looking these sweet children in the eye and communicating verbally and non-verbally.
Ages Seven to Nine
As kids get a little older, the guidance remains constant. Still no cell phones, if feasible. And if phones are needed for tracking or communication (the only recommended purpose of a phone at this age), keep it to very simple, limited-use phones like those available through Troomi.
Kids this age likewise should not have social media. According to parenting expert Judy Arnall, author of Parenting with Patience, “Kids at this age don’t understand the permanence of posting things online because those critical-thinking skills don’t kick in until age 13.” So don’t give your kids the opportunity to make poor choices on social media.
Ages Ten to Twelve
While trends suggest that kids in this age group get their first cell phones, it still may not be the best idea. And if kids do get phones at this age, they should use phones primarily to communicate with parents. That means limited or no Internet access and closely-monitored usage time and content.
Cheng suggests that just like we don’t allow our 12-year-olds to drive cars because cars are dangerous, we should not allow 12-year-olds to have cell phones because they can be just as dangerous.
Because the teenage years are filled with enough angst and struggle, why add more with unlimited cell phone use? While teens and cell phones seem to go hand in hand these days, waiting until your kids are 16 or older to give them a phone might be even better. With teenage anxiety and depression, cyberbullying, sedentary lifestyles, social isolation, lack of human connection, poor body image, and addictive behaviors on the rise in teens, why give them a tool that could be contributing to the problems?
If top tech executives think it’s a good idea to keep tech out of their own kids’ hands, maybe they’re onto something important.
Rules for Cellphone Use
If you’ve considered your options carefully and feel like giving your child a cellphone is the right choice, consider these suggested rules for cellphone use offered by raisingchildren.net and Today’s Parent.
- Require kids to answer all your calls and texts. Communication is key (and the main purpose of a phone).
- Allow kids to call and text friends and listen to music.
- Don’t allow kids to watch movies on phones.
- Install parental controls, including a way to limit or block Internet access and set screen time limits.
- Allow downloading apps with your approval only.
- Don’t allow kids to use phones in public settings when interacting with others (classrooms are a prime example).
- Establish screen-free times, especially from around 9 pm to 6 am.
- Keep phones away from dinner tables and private spaces (like bedrooms).
- Check in phones at night for charging.
- Model healthy cellphone habits yourself.
So, should children use mobile phones? Cell phones aren’t the enemy, but they can be harmful to our kids if we allow them to be used too soon, too frequently, or too freely. If you’re considering getting your kids a phone (or even using one as an instant babysitter in a pinch), be wise. Do the costs outweigh the benefits? When you make an informed decision and help your kids use the right phone in the right way and for the right reasons, you can be at peace with their cell phone use.