Deciding At What Age To Give A Kid A Smartphone

Nov 21, 2017
Originally published on November 29, 2017 5:25 pm

It's the time of year when kids are thinking about their holiday wish lists. So what's a parent to do when a child, possibly a very young child, asks for a smartphone?

We hear that smartphones can be addictive, that screen time can hurt learning, but can't these minicomputers also teach kids about responsibility and put educational apps at their tiny fingertips?

To learn more, let's look at two families: one where smartphones are allowed for elementary to middle school-aged kids, and one where they are not.

Sydney Crowe is in sixth grade and has a smartphone. While she admits she mostly uses it for "playing games and watching television," her mom, Patty, says that's not why Sydney got the phone.

Patty's main concern was safety. When Syndey was in fourth grade, the bus missed her stop enough times to really worry her parents. Without means to call an adult, she would walk to school near a busy highway.

That's when Patty gave her daughter a flip phone. But Sydney never charged it — she forgot about it. To her, a flip phone wasn't fun. "She wasn't using the junky phone," says Patty. So when her husband wanted to upgrade his iPhone, they decided to give the old one to Sydney as a hand-me-down.

Patty says she rolled her eyes at the idea of her child having a smartphone, but ultimately decided to allow it for one main reason: peace of mind.

On the other side of the debate, there's Mercy Shannon. She's 9 years old and doesn't have a cellphone. She likes playing house, playing outside and singing on her karaoke machine.

Mercy's mom, Brooke Shannon, like many other parents of elementary school kids, faced the cellphone decision early on. "They started asking for a phone in first grade," she says about her kids.

Brooke felt pressure from her children, yes, but also from other parents. So she started an online pledge that she calls "Wait Until 8th" to create a community of parents within each school waiting to give their kids smartphones until at least eighth grade — when most children are out of elementary and nearing high school. So far, more than 4,000 families across the country have signed the online pledge.

In addition to wanting her kids to have a break from screens, Brooke worries about the effects, specifically, of social media.

"Children just don't have the brain development at this age to be able to navigate the tricky social situations that come with social media," she says.

That isn't just a parent concern. Richard Freed, a California-based child psychologist and author of a book on the subject, wanted to research the topic after seeing an increase in the number of children coming to him with anxiety and depression.

His suggestion? Put some ground rules in place. "I want parents to understand how remarkably powerful and seductive these technologies are," he says.

Many agree that there's no magic age to give a kid a smartphone. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on kids and technology, says rather than considering the age of a child, focus on maturity. Some questions to consider are:

  • Are they responsible with their belongings?
  • Will they follow rules around phone use?
  • Would having easy access to friends benefit them for social reasons?
  • And do kids need to be in touch for safety reasons? If so, will an old-fashioned flip phone (like the one Sydney never charged) do the trick?
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's the time of year when kids are thinking about their holiday wish lists, and it's likely that at the top of many of those wish lists is a smartphone. And it's a big decision for parents, right? Screen time will rot your child's brain. Or maybe smartphones help kids learn important lessons about the real world and responsibility. At what age is it OK to give them one? Claire McInerny from member station KUT in Austin walks us through it.

CLAIRE MCINERNY, BYLINE: For the purposes of this story, we're going to divide families into two groups - those whose elementary and middle school-aged kids have a smartphone and those who don't. The Crowe family lives in Austin and falls into the first group. Sixth-grader Sydney has a smartphone and uses it for two main things.

SYDNEY CROWE: Playing games and watching television.

MCINERNY: But that's not why she got it. Patty, Sydney's mom, says a few years ago, her daughter ran into some transportation problems.

PATTY CROWE: We had some bus issues where we'd leave her at the bus stop and head to work, and the bus didn't show up.

MCINERNY: Sydney was in fourth grade and with no way to call an adult, she started walking to school near a busy highway. After that, Patty gave her daughter an old flip phone for cases like this. But Sydney never charged that phone because she forgot about it. To her, a flip phone wasn't fun.

CROWE: We realized she wasn't using the junky phone. So my husband wanted to upgrade, and that's when she finally got the iPhone.

MCINERNY: Patty says she definitely rolled her eyes at the idea of her child having a smartphone but ultimately decided to give Sydney a hand-me-down iPhone for one main reason - peace of mind.

MERCY SHANNON: My name is Mercy Shannon. I'm 8 years - no, I'm 9 years old.

MCINERNY: Mercy, another kid who lives in Austin, falls into the second group. She doesn't have a cellphone. She likes playing house, playing outside and singing on her karaoke machine.

MERCY: (Singing) I saw him dancing there by...

MCINERNY: Mercy's mom, Brooke Shannon, like many other parents of elementary school kids, faced the cellphone decision early on.

BROOKE SHANNON: They have been asking for years. So they've - they started asking - my oldest started asking for a phone in first grade.

MCINERNY: Faced with pressure from her kids and other parents, Brooke started a pledge called Wait Until 8th. It's an online pledge more than 4,000 families across the country have made. The point is to create a community within each school of parents all waiting to give their kids smartphones until eighth grade so they don't feel alone. She figures by eighth grade, kids are mature enough to handle all that comes with a smartphone. In addition to wanting her kids to have a break from screens, Brooke worries about the effects, specifically of social media.

SHANNON: It is very challenging to hand over this technology to our children. Children just do not have the brain development at this age to be able to navigate the tricky social situations that come with social media.

MCINERNY: Which isn't just a parent concern. Richard Freed, a California-based child psychologist and author of a book on the subject, agrees. He wanted to research the topic of kids in the digital age after seeing an increase in the number of children coming to him with anxiety and depression.

RICHARD FREED: A lot of times, kids' depression would be related to the fact that they were living alone in their room on their phone and disconnected with family.

MCINERNY: Another concern of his - that social media leads kids to compare themselves to their peers. Freed suggests putting ground rules in place.

FREED: I want parents to understand how remarkably powerful and seductive these technologies are.

MCINERNY: But for parents pondering this themselves, experts do tend to agree on one thing - there is no magic age to give a kid a smartphone. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on kids and technology, says rather than considering the age of a child, focus on their maturity. Are they responsible with their belongings? Will they follow rules around phone use? One solution for parents wanting to communicate with their kids is to get a cellphone but not a smartphone. For NPR News, I'm Claire McInerny in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "SEND RECEIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.