Children and smartphones: What's the right age?

One of the biggest and most divisive debates among parents of young children and preteens deals with the age at which children should be allowed to have their own smartphone. The advent of kid-friendly apps and the ability to watch streaming videos in the palm of your hand have made the decision even more difficult for parents.

A recent survey conducted by mobile service provider Zact found that 56 percent of children ages 10 to 13 have a smartphone, while a shockingly high 25 percent of children ages 2 to 5 have a smartphone. But should children so young have access to their own handsets? And what is an appropriate age to own a smartphone?

We spoke with experts in the fields of child psychology and technology to help you decide when to finally cave and get your kid a smartphone.

How will the phone be used?
So, you’re sitting around the dinner table, and your 10-year-old brings up the subject of getting her own iPhone. Your immediate response may be to shut her down, deciding that she is too young for a handset, without giving it a second thought. But before you say no, you should question why she wants a smartphone in the first place.

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“The real question is, ‘What is the phone for?’, not [at] what age the child should be using it,” said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. Rutledge — who focuses on the impact of media, social media and new technologies on children — recommends that parents look at the smartphone discussion from a practical standpoint.

“If the child is very active in team sports and there are a lot of logistics or emergencies, that is a very good reason to have a smartphone,” Rutledge said.

Of course, your son or daughter may simply want a smartphone for its social benefits. Rutledge said that at the fourth- or fifth-grade level, children today will start running into classmates who have their own smartphones. The desire to run in similar social circles as their classmates could make your children ask for their own smartphones.

The educational possibilities a smartphone presents should also play a role in any parent’s decision-making process. Proof of this educational potential exists in Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store, which offer apps that can help teach children everything from basic language-arts skills to calculus.

Emotional maturity required
The consensus among experts in the field of child psychology and development is that there is no universal age at which a child is ready for a smartphone. Rutledge noted that introducing your child to mobile technology at a young age will provide them with the kind of solid foundation they need to function in the increasingly digital world. However, she pointed out that parents should be attuned to their children’s emotional and physical maturity before handing them a smartphone.

“There are kids that work the phone very easily and some that it is going to be a frustrating experience,” she said. If a child becomes frustrated with technology at an early age, they may develop an aversion to it that can stick with them for quite some time.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Sociology of Science, is a specialist on the psychological impact of computers and technology on children. She doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with smartphones per se, but they can take away from the kind of face-to-face interaction children need to develop emotionally.


“Conversation with others is where children learn to have conversations with themselves," Turkle said. "For kids growing up, that is the bedrock of development.”

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Turkle believes that when people are capable of enjoying solitude, they put themselves in line for healthy interpersonal relationships down the road. Smartphones, she said, negatively impact people's ability to be alone, as they will constantly try to contact someone when they are alone.

“Children must learn to be comfortable in their own company without having to retreat into a telephone or a game," Turkle stressed. “These days, the minute people are alone, if only for a few minutes, they reach for a phone.”

Helping or hurting development?
Rutledge indicated that there is no evidence to suggest that smartphones impact children’s social development. There have, though, been studies that point to excessive screen time as being problematic, she said.

“There is also evidence that technology can provide very effective learning experiences, especially when children don't have other types of positive cognitive and emotional stimulation,” Rutledge said. “This was the logic behind the development of 'Sesame Street.'"

Michael Moyer, a father of one, said he tries to keep his iPhone in his pocket while he's around his 2-year-old son. However, Moyer also admitted to using his handset as a distraction tool during particularly stressful situations. “We will give a phone to him in the waiting rooms of doctors' offices, for instance; he's scared of the doctor's office,” he said.

Still, Moyer, who said he’d like to wait until his son is 6 or 7 years old before giving him a handset of his own, is skeptical of a smartphone’s ability to serve as a learning tool.

“Kids are wired to learn from other humans, not from animated displays,” Moyer said.

Middle school as middle ground
A former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media, Dr. Kathleen Clarke-Pearson believes children entering middle school are at the point in their lives when they are becoming more independent. A smartphone, she contends, can ensure that distance doesn’t become too great.

“The cellphone provides access to parents and children,” said Clarke-Pearson, of the Chapel Hill North Medical Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. “It creates an opportunity for more communication, because the kids text the mother, saying, ‘I’m feeling sick,’ or ‘I’m feeling bullied’ or ‘The coach canceled practice, and I need a ride home.'"

“It’s part and parcel of this day and age,” Clarke-Pearson said. “It’s just part of the life of a middle schooler to have a cellphone.”

On the other hand, the experts we spoke with don’t condone giving a smartphone to a child younger than sixth grade. In fact, Clarke-Pearson told us it’s “not reasonable, sensible or developmentally appropriate” for children younger than that age to have a smartphone.

Turkle doesn’t have any specific guidelines, but she also urges parents to be cautious and use good discretion. “I don't think there is a magic point, a ‘right’ age. But this is something that should be postponed as long as possible,” Turkle said.

Parents may be tempted to simply say "no" and not even discuss the subject with their child, but that tactic probably won’t work, Rutledge said. “Denying access not only doesn't work, but it makes the activities more desirable,” she said.

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Safety precautions
Although there is clearly no firm answer as to when a child should get his or her first smartphone, experts agree that safety is paramount when a child does eventually get one.

A mother herself, Rutledge stresses that parents should have a conversation with their children outlining exactly what they will be doing with their phone.

“No child should use a smartphone or the Internet without being prepared with an understanding of the potential issues of privacy, permanence, searchability and netiquette,” Rutledge said.

“Look at it like a car: It can be very useful and very dangerous,” she added. “You don’t just throw them the keys; you teach them driving strategies and show them how to use it.

Rutledge said parents should create a contract with their children to discuss what the phone is for (and what it’s not for) and come to an agreement. Kids should also understand the implications of oversharing online. “There is no such thing as 'private' on the Internet,” she said.

To help prevent their children from sharing private information online, parents should implement parental controls on their children's handsets. All of the major carriers offer parental controls that not only prevent children from visiting inappropriate sites, but can also keep them from sending texts or making calls to untrusted numbers.

Verizon’s FamilyBase service ($5 per month for up to 10 lines), which launched in July, allows parents to monitor the activity of each device on their account, set usage limits and block contacts they don’t want their children to call or text. AT&T’s Smart Limits for Wireless ($4.99 per month) and T-Mobile’s Family Allowance ($4.99 per month for as many lines as there are on the account) and MobileLife, offer similar features. Sprint’s Guardian ($9.99 per month for up to five lines) software offers all of the aforementioned benefits, while also helping to ensure teens don’t use their handsets while driving.

Bottom line
Child-psychology experts don’t have anything against smartphones. In fact, they say these devices can be useful learning tools and can help parents stay in touch with their children. As kids approach middle school, most parents should feel comfortable giving Junior a device of his own, provided he demonstrates the necessary emotional maturity.

However, parents should sit down with their kids and teach them how to responsibly use their devices. Specifically, Clarke-Pearson said parents should discuss the dangers of sexting and sending photos of themselves, as well as how to act as good digital citizens.

Remember: Children will learn digital behavior by watching you. “If you don't want your kid overusing their phones, honor the boundaries you want them to follow, Rutledge said. “Don't bring your smartphone to the dinner table, don't text while you drive and don't ignore them while using the Internet.”