Kids & Tech: How Young is too Young for a Cell Phone?

The pitfalls of parenting in this uber-connected universe are many, but the simple question “Mom, Dad... Can I have a smartphone?” is sure to strike fear into the hearts of even the most cyber-savvy among us.

It used to be that only high-schoolers had smart devices fused to their palms, but now kids as young as 5 are clamoring for tablets and smartphones with all the wiles they can muster. And their arguments are compelling – the most frequent one is that they will be able to use their phone in an emergency. But an old-fashioned flip does the same thing (yes, they still make basic feature mobile phones).

So how young is too young?

Access at Every Age

Just because toddlers like to push buttons and watch cartoon videos doesn’t mean they’re ready for an expensive, fragile device. Experts recommend waiting until your child is at least preschool age to even use one, because kids under two years of age learn best from real-world experiences. In order for their natural senses to develop properly, they must have actual interactions.

On top of that, early research has shown a correlation between cell phone radiation and cancer risk, where lab rats have developed brain tumors as a result of high radiation exposure. While more investigation is needed at this point, the fact is that children's growing bodies and developing brains make them extra susceptible to environmental toxicity, including cell phone radiation. When it comes to brain tumors specifically, children's skulls are thinner, making them particularly vulnerable. Putting off cell phone use is definitely a good precaution. 

When it comes to older kids, certain things must be taken into consideration: In addition to phone calls, texts, music, games, and photos, smartphones offer completely unfiltered access to the Internet and cutting-edge apps. This is a double-edged sword, because although mature content is easily accessed, so are communication and education tools that are essential to learning and growing with today’s ever-increasing digital technological leaps.

With more research needed at this point on the health effects of cell phone radiation, whether your child is ready for a phone is really a personal choice. However, if you are planning on handing over a device, preparedness is key.

Establishing Safeguards

If you’re planning on giving your child a smartphone or tablet, there are a few precautions you can take:

  • Set a password for the phone as a means of defending your kid’s personal information from busybodies and thieves. Check the password often, to make sure your child hasn’t changed it on the sly.
  • Install a security app (Lookout is a good one), to prevent them from downloading mature apps and visiting unsafe websites that can hack the phone or compromise your family’s privacy.
  • Take the initiative to add essential numbers to the contacts list. Be sure to include yourself (duh!), other family members, emergency services (not just 9-1-1), school, and sitter.
  • Buy a strong, protective case. Kids tend to be more careless than adults when it comes to the handling of their things, so avoid the heartbreak of a broken screen by preventing it in the first place. (The Otterbox Defender case is good.)
  • Get an extra charger, so there’s no excuse for them not to call or text when running late, etc.
  • Find out what the cell phone policies are at your child’s school.
  • Set some house rules for using the smartphone or tablet. Make sure your child and you know where the printed copy is, to avoid any misunderstandings. Lay out the consequences in advance, and if needed, impose them. Empty threats are just that.
  • If your child is old enough to get behind the wheel, stress the hazards of texting while driving. Over 75% of all teen drivers admit that they text while driving and acknowledge it can be dangerous, but no one ever thinks it can happen to them. (Show them the documentary From One Second to the Next. Or simply activate a service like Textecution or DriveSmart, which disables the phone while it’s in a moving vehicle.)
  • To curb excessive texting, talking, and surfing, opt for one of the many mobile plans that cap the amounts of data allowed per month. The carrier will notify you when a user is nearing the limit. What’s more, kids should contribute to the expenses of having a phone. If they can’t pay in cash, chores will do.
  • Set limits and go over ground rules for interacting with others on social media.
  • Don’t allow kids to take their smartphones to bed with them; overexposure to the lit screen can fool the brain’s melatonin into thinking it’s daytime, and is likely to lead to insomnia.

And in the midst of all these landmines, remember to have fun. Make the use of the tablet interactive for your kids and you. Don’t leave them to their own, err… devices – there are tons of awesome apps that teach math, money management, geography, literature, offer digital pets, memory games, Words with Friends, and programs that help you create your own unique art and music. Enjoy these experiences together, and who knows? You might learn something!

Are you planning on giving your child a smartphone? What will you set as the usage rules?

Tags : technology   phone   

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