My nephew Jason began to campaign for his phone two years ago, when he was 11. Like most kids his age, he had clamored for some Beats headphones for Christmas, and wheedled his mom Rita for a huge party at the local laser tag place for his birthday, but he was much more subtle and strategic about the phone.
“You know, Mom, when I start junior high next year, I’ll be busy with lots of activities,” he said, trying to play it casual. “Don’t you think it’d be good if I had my own phone in case I’m late?”
Rita said she’d consider it, but getting it depended on his behavior and ability to act responsibly. So Jason was a model child… for about two weeks, until he realized she wasn’t going to cave in so quickly.
Rita faced a dilemma. In some ways, Jason was right. A phone would help coordinate with him over his many activities, and help to keep in touch when he spent weekends with his father. But a phone opened up a Pandora’s Box of potential issues: bullying, sexting, distraction, tech addiction, impaired social interaction skills.
She was wrestling with a now-common dilemma and rite-of-passage parents often face. When is the right age to give children their first cell phone? And how do you gauge, and then prepare them, for what is ultimately a big responsibility? Rita didn’t know where to go for answers — other parents were as confused as she was.
Like other parenting dilemmas — whether it’s toilet-training, the terrible twos, or the early throes of adolescence — no hard-and-fast rules exist when it comes to kids and smartphones. Still, parents can look at studies, which show the average age of kids who own a device continues to drop. According to a British study, on average, children in the U.K. received their first phone at the age of 11, or around the time they entered middle school. But nearly 1-in-10 of five-year-olds had a phone as well, the study reported, showing the broad range of ages.
I informally polled some parents on Facebook, and the range of answers was eye-opening. “High school,” some parents said, believing smartphones are a good tether for increasingly independent children, allowing them a degree of freedom while also allowing them to stay in touch.
Other parents, who wanted to emphasize the luxury of having a smartphone, didn’t believe in giving a phone until their kids could help pay for part of the family plan. “With all those lines and data, it adds up, so I want my kid to see that phones just don’t arrive out of nowhere,” Daniel, a friend, said. “They’re real burdens on the household budget, and they need to contribute to that.”
Some parents said they gave feature phones at a younger age, believing younger children were more amenable to rules and conditions, such as having their data checked on a regular basis or phone logs monitored. When their kids showed more maturity, they were “upgraded” to smartphones with apps, setting a hierarchy of rewards to aspire to and earn with good behavior.
“My daughter Clea was dying to get on Instagram with her friends,” one mom told me. “But I wouldn’t let that happen until she pulled her grades up and I saw she understood how her actions affect other people.” Clea eventually joined Instagram, after having a talk about a local cyber-bullying incident, which demonstrated Clea understood the serious responsibility of posting photos and making comments. The phone became a teaching and motivational tool that helped to open discussions about ethics and bullying. “It’s a nice concrete thing to talk about, and it led to some really good talks between us,” Clea’s mom said.
One father gave his daughter an old iPhone to use with Wi-Fi, giving her access to certain photography apps and games, but not to texting and phone calls.
The wide range of answers reflects not just the different values of different families, but the multiple uses we have for our devices. We use them for communication, entertainment, information, work and play — and perhaps this is part of the confusion when it comes to deciding when kids get their first phones. Is a phone primarily a way to keep in touch? A tool for work and creativity? And what’s the most appropriate use for a child? It’s a dizzying set of choices for parents to navigate.
One father, Matthew, told me about the ruckus that arose when one child in his son’s fourth grade class got a cell phone. “The rest of us all wanted to throttle that kid’s parents,” he said. “Weeks after, all we heard was ‘Tyler has a phone, why can’t I have one, too?'”
Later, Matthew learned Tyler had diabetes, and his parents gave him the phone in case of a medical emergency.
“Sometimes, I think we don’t really question why we need phones anymore, or how we should use them — it’s automatic,” he said. “But when you throw kids into the mix, you have to figure it out for yourself and your family.”
Rita was navigating this debate with Jason. After she initially shut him down, Jason threw out all pretense of maturity and began to whine in the way all socially-conscious pre-teens do. “Mom, can I have my own cell phone? All my friends have them!” he pleaded.
She knew it wasn’t true — Jason had only one or two friends who had a phone. They were his most popular friends. Jason was just reaching the age where he was beginning to carve out his own place in the social hierarchy at school, so he fixated on the phone as a way for him to become popular, too. Knowing this was Jason’s real reason, she understood he wasn’t mature enough for the responsibility of having one yet. It was an inconvenience for her, but she decided not to give him a phone yet.
Beyond Jason’s own lack of maturity, Rita also felt a deeper trepidation about mixing phones and kids. Nearly all parents I talked to or heard from gave voice to the typical fears we read about — sexting, bullying, disrupted sleeping patterns, distraction and lack of focus. But parents also had more personal reasons to be nervous. Some voiced their discomfort with technology, especially compared to their whiz-kid children.
“I can’t really keep up with all the different hot new apps,” a father of two said. “I can’t even be bothered to keep my own phone updated half the time. It’s an area where my sons could easily outfox me.”
Others worry about impaired social skills, a concern child psychologists often echo. “Our brains evolved to communicate face-to-face,” Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-author of “IBrain,” told Time. “A lot of this is lost with texting.”
Empathy and the ability to read social signals are some of the abilities lost when communication is reduced to texting. “There’s a difference between an apology and typing, ‘I’m sorry’, and ‘send’,” Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and author of “Alone Together,” told Time. “Texting takes the messiness out of human relationships. It’s not our job as parents to tidy up the world and deliver it in little sound bites.”
Some parents had concerns about radiation, too. While radiation has long been debated when it comes to phones, scientists discovered children’s brains absorb more of it. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, the average radio frequency of energy deposited in the brains of children is two times higher than compared to adults, and about 10 times higher in the bone marrows of their skulls. In 2012, the AAP sent a letter to the FCC, requesting it reassess radiation standards for children, pointing out that kids feel a greater impact from environmental factors, such as radiation, due to their still-developing bodies.
Ultimately, much of the anxiety comes from how we still don’t fully know and understand the effects of technology upon children. Jason is part of the first generation that will come of age entirely under the influence of mobile devices — and that influence inspires ambiguity, fear and excitement in their parents. The idea of trusting phones to kids — when we’re still unraveling connectivity’s consequences on our own lives, health and brains — is unnerving. What behaviors do we unknowingly feed when we entrust them with powerful devices?
“Children have access to the Internet almost from birth now,” Richard Graham, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at London’s Caprio Nightingale Hospital, told the Mirror. “They see their parents playing on their mobile devices and they want to play too. It’s difficult, because having a device can also be very useful in terms of having a reward, having a pacifier. But if you don’t get the balance right it can be very dangerous.”
Sometimes, the balance can go very awry, and children are showing increasing levels of dependence on devices. Graham, who created the first tech addiction treatment program in the U.K., runs a digital detox program for children, where he treats toddlers and young children who become inconsolable and distressed when their gadgets are taken away from them. He told The Daily Telegraph he’s seen young children express the same agitation that alcoholics and heroin addicts do when their drugs are taken away from them, and believes tech addiction impairs the abilities of children to form normal social relationships.
While tech rehab for children sounds extreme, his course isn’t the only one of its kind. Japan’s Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry announced plans to organize a series of “Internet-free” camps designed to separate children from computers, smartphones and portable gaming consoles. The program was devised after a massive government-sponsored study revealed that eight percent of children between the age of 12 and 18 showed signs of Internet addiction, including disrupted sleep, depression and withdrawal symptoms, and even deep vein thrombosis.
At these camps, children focus on outdoor and group activities designed to help them learn face-to-face communication. They also attend counseling sessions with psychiatrists and clinical psychotherapists to help the ministry identify the causes of Internet addiction.
The idea of Internet addiction is still relatively controversial — there is no official diagnosis or condition yet. Yet disordered tech behavior in children doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it reflects our own dysfunctional reliance on gadgets, as well as the overall impact of parenting on a kid.
Internet addiction may also be the logical outgrowth of larger problems in the family. Children of tough, demanding and unaffectionate parents tend to be sad, or to have trouble making friends — traits that raise their risk of Internet addiction, according to Fox News. In children, the key to preventing Internet addiction may lie in addressing the fundamental issues within the family — and not just fixating on the technology or the devices.
Solid guidelines are starting to emerge in the face of the growing “techification” of childhood. Citing a study that found children ages eight to 18 in the U.S. spend about seven hours a day using some form of entertainment media, the AAP recommended only two hours of non-homework screen time a day for kids, as well as banning computers, devices and TVs from the bedrooms of children.
That might be so easy, however, as kids continue to clamor for gadgets and games, and parents, whose lives are already overburdened, find it easier to hand over an iPad for a moment of peace and quiet.
The problems don’t end, of course, once you give a child a device. One issue parents grapple with is how to make devices built for grown-ups safe for kids. One young mother on Facebook told me she bought an Amazon Kindle for her tween-age boy as a beginner’s tablet. “Tablets can be educational, and it’s a nice reward and incentive for good behavior,” she said. “But when I got it, I was shocked at how hard it was to customize everything from automatic purchases to the sites he could visit.”
She did her best, but it still didn’t prevent her son from accidentally stumbling upon Japanese anime porn sites, which he thought were regular cartoons of his favorite comic books. “I was so angry, at him, at myself, and kind of at the whole Internet in general,” she said. “I had to have a conversation with him that I wasn’t entirely prepared for.” She took away the Kindle for some time, and now describes herself as hyper-vigilant in monitoring what he looks at on the tablet. “As if I don’t already have enough to do as a mom,” she sighed.
Device makers, though, are beginning to recognize the need for children’s phones and tablets that parents can quickly and easily monitor — something with limitations and controls already built in that parents don’t have to get a computer science degree to manage. The Kurio Kids Phone makes it easy to track activity on device. Parents can restrict access to apps, set limits on how much data to use, and even keep tabs on the location by getting notifications when a child leaves a predefined area. Parents can also control who calls or texts can go out to — and they can do it all with a remote lock and erase feature. Kurio also has a built-in filtering system to restrict the certain websites from kids.
Kurio looks like a “grown-up” Android phone, featuring a sleek design, minimalist controls and no obvious logos or elements that scream, “This is a kid’s phone!” It hasn’t hit the market yet, so parents will have to make do with old-school feature phones. Eventually, that’s what Rita settled on for Jason, who finally earned his first device at 13.
For Rita, the turning point was when Jason could limit himself with his other screentime outlets: she saw how he put down the Xbox controller without protest, and how he approached his iPad time as a reward after homework, and not an entitlement. She also saw how he still liked to read actual books, not just on e-readers. Once she realized he was a bright kid with a solid sense of right and wrong, an independent mind and well-rounded interests, she felt he could handle a phone.
Rita and Jason hit some growing pains over the phone — mostly over data use from looking up stuff excessively on the Internet — but overall it’s been “not that big a deal,” as Jason would say.
Lately, though, he’s been campaigning for a smartphone. “It never ends,” Rita said. “This is what they mean when they say a parent’s job is never done.” ♦