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Your child has probably been wanting you to get them a smartphone, but what at what age is this appropriate? You may just want to enable them to stay touch with you, but they'll be doing much more on a smartphone.

Does your child not have a smartphone yet? Chances are that they have been begging you to change that. When is it the right time, though? We're sure your child has plenty of "good" reasons for wanting one — being able to reach you, using it for educational apps or robotics classes, and even to take pictures or use the calculator function. That's not all they're gonna be doing on a smartphone, though.

Once they have one, they're not gonna want to hand it in again, so what should parents consider before getting their children their very first smartphone? 

Smartphone use among children: Some statistics

Data from 2018 shows that nearly half of US kids aged between zero (seems like some kids are practically born with one!) and 11 own and use a smartphone — a number that is bound to have gone up since that time. Parents considering whether to get their kids smartphones these days may themselves have grown up with "simple" cellphones that could call people and play the "snake" game, but today's phones are literally pocket-sized computers that connect to the whole world, and everything good and bad in it. 

That stuff's pretty hypnotizing — according to the CDC, 43 percent of teens spend three or more hours each day using an electronic device for “something that was not school work”. This includes playing games and using social media, and if your child owns a smartphone, much of this time will be spent on there.

What kinds of children are most likely to spend a lot of time on their smartphone? Beyond the simplest answer of them all, “children who have one”, research actually has some interesting insights:

  • The older children get, the more likely they are to spend a lot of time using a smartphone.
  • Curiously, children who are not Hispanic statistically have higher odds of putting in serious hours on a smartphone than those who are.
  • Children with “less self-control” tend to be more glued to their smartphone — as your kid would say, "duuuuh"!
  • Kids who have mental health struggles are heavier smartphone users.
  • Children of overly controlling "helicopter" parents — including those who specifically say they set "strict limits" on smartphone use — are on their smartphone more often. This may seem paradoxical as such parents may want to control smartphone use too, but there's science to back that up.
  • Children who see technology as having an integral role in learning also spend more time on their smartphones.
  • Children with “low friendship satisfaction” (in “real life”) are more likely to resort to smartphone use.
  • Girls use smartphones more than boys.

So, what are the potential negative consequences of smartphone use?

Studies have confirmed that children who use their smartphones excessively get fewer hours of sleep, and the sleep they do get is of poorer quality. This is especially, but not only, true for children who stay up late using their phones. Such children also have a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese, probably because poor sleep quality interferes with the production of important hormones that regulate appetite.

Smartphone use is also, again in rather "Captain Obvious" fashion, linked to less time spent outside and more “dangerous street crossing”. Heavy smartphone use is associated with having more friends, but that also includes a higher chance of friends who parents think exert a “bad influence”. Cyberbullying is another issue, as the CDC suggests that nearly 15 percent of teens have experienced this.

Finally, research shows that smartphones can be “addictive”, as in, the child finds it very difficult to not use their phone and gets cranky if they don’t have access to it. Both the games that can be played on smartphones and the peer interaction through social media and messaging apps can have this effect.

How can smartphones play a positive role in a child’s life?

Research-wise, I’ve come across data that claims kids who are glued to their smartphones around the clock have better motor coordination due to playing games.

We don’t always need research to confidently be able to state something, though, and I’d say the real reason many parents don’t just reluctantly allow, but actually want their children to have a smartphone is so that they’ll be able to get in touch at any time. Once your child is at the age where they start going places (besides school) by themselves, knowing that you can reach your child whenever you want and that they can call you if they need you offers great peace of mind and perhaps added safety. In other words, you may not worry too much about your child wasting time on games and Instagram if the smartphone also means you'll immediately know if they get in a car accident or need picking up after a fight with a friend. 

At what age should your child have a smartphone, then?

We can’t look to research for the right answer, so this one is all on you, as a parent. We might say that your child should have a cellphone when they begin going places without you, so they can reach you, but that phone doesn’t necessarily have to be a smartphone. There's a lot to be said for getting younger children a "dumb phone" instead. 

A child might be ready for a smartphone when they are able to use one responsibly, not having it interfere with academic performance, crossing roads safely, or spending plenty of quality time with actual people face to face. In truth, though, you won’t necessarily known this in advance.

What we can say, based on research from South Korea where nearly all teenagers have smartphones, is that children are most likely to use their smartphone in a productive rather than addictive way if they:

  • Have larger social networks, through religious attendance or afterschool clubs.
  • Have real-life friends that they spend time with.
  • Have supportive parents with whom they have an open and honest relationship (they feel they can talk to parents about anything).
If this describes your child, they’re better candidate for a smartphone than some, whether they’re 10, 12, or 16.

  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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