Cellphones for Children May Not Be a Wise Choice
My colleague Michelle Quinn got her son an iPhone when he entered middle school last year. My son wasn’t so lucky.
Not only did he not get a smartphone when he entered middle school, but I don’t plan to get him even a simple cellphone anytime soon.
Michelle’s story about what happened with her son’s use of his phone has served as a cautionary tale. That, plus some research I’ve done on my own, has influenced my thinking.
My take-away on all this: Giving a kid a phone — particularly a smartphone — should not be taken lightly. It should be done only after considering all the risks involved, educating your kid about them and attempting in advance to mitigate them. And it should be done with the full realization that all that planning could be for naught.
Before I go further, let me make this clear: Phones, particularly smartphones, are amazing devices. They can potentially be great tools for kids to use, whether for academic or creative pursuits, to connect with friends or to just entertain themselves.
What worries me is that they can also can be a channel for destructive, dangerous or anti-social behavior. The risks are almost too numerous to list, but they include everything from cyberbullying to sleep deprivation to texting while driving to addiction.
A wireless phone “is a powerful tool,” said Pamela Rutledge, a faculty member at Fielding Graduate University who studies media and technology. “It has a lot of temptations.”
That fact is something that many of the leaders in technology have recognized and acted on in their personal lives. As reported by The New York Times last year, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, 3D Robotics founder Chris Anderson and others set limits on their kids’ access to and use of tech gadgets.
As I’ve contemplated getting a cellphone for my son, I’ve been observing how I use my own. Frankly, I have a hard time putting it down. I occasionally use it while driving, even though I know that is dangerous. I often have it at the dinner table, even when I should be focusing on my family and our conversation. I’ve been known to fire off an ill-considered email or social media post.
And I have a brain with a fully developed frontal lobe (hopefully, anyway).
I’m worried about how well my 11-year-old son, whose prefrontal cortex is still developing, could regulate his own use of a phone. When I see and hear about his peers staring at their devices at lunch or before school instead of interacting with their friends, it doesn’t give me much confidence.
Child development experts say that there is no magic age at which all children suddenly become mature enough to handle a wireless phone of their own. Middle school age is a good rule of thumb for when it could be appropriate, but some kids may be able to handle a phone younger and some older.
Dimitri A Christakis compared kids’ use of cellphones to driving, noting that kids in his state can drive at 16.
“That doesn’t mean every child is ready to drive at 16,” said Christakis, who is the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the University of Washington. “It’s the parents’ role to decide if their child is ready.”
But even before they get to that step, experts say, parents need to assess just how much their kids really need a wireless phone and for what purpose.
“Not everyone needs a phone,” said Annie Fox, author of Teaching Kids to be Good People and a parenting expert. “Your kid wanting it is not necessarily a need.”
A simple flip phone may not have the same status symbol as an iPhone, but it poses far fewer risks of distraction or overuse and may be sufficient if its purpose is to coordinate after-school pickups.
Experts also recommend that parents set clear limits on time, texting and data use before handing over a phone, and to explain the consequences for breaking the rules. Parents can then review their kids’ use periodically to see how they are doing with those limits and possibly increase them if they are being responsible.
A bedtime ban, possibly enforced by requiring it to be recharged in another room, is one of the most important rules, experts say. The compulsion to respond to texts or social media posts can prove irresistible to kids — often at the expense of needed sleep.
“Limiting use is a critical thing to promote,” said Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
As with many things, modeling good behavior is important. If you don’t want your kid to text and drive, you can’t do it yourself. If you want them to put the phone down at the dinner table, you’ve got to put yours down as well.
“Do as I say, not as I do isn’t an effective strategy,” said Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor at Common Sense Media.
I don’t see a compelling need for my son to have a wireless phone today. But I’m sure he’ll get one sooner or later. And when he does, I plan to keep these tips in mind.