by Colleen M. Story

Cellphones give families peace of mind. Members can easily contact one another in an emergency, and parents can better track their children’s’ whereabouts. But that brings up the question: Just when is it appropriate to give a child a cellphone?

Parents may like the idea of being able to reach their children at any time, but there are very real concerns about how regular exposure to the Internet and social media might affect young minds. Before making the decision, it’s important to be aware of a few things.

Cellphones Come with Serious Risks

According to a 2016 study from research firm Influence Central, the average age when a child gets his or her first cellphone is around 10 years old, which is younger than it was in 2012 (at 12 years old). Some parents, when their kids complain that most of the other school children already carry phones, actually feel pressured into buying.

Before caving, parents must understand the very real dangers that cellphones can present:

» Sleep Problems:

The blue light emitted by cellphone screens alters hormones like melatonin, disrupting sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. Several studies have linked teens’ use of cellphones before bed with increased sleep deprivation, lower sleep quality, and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety.

» Mental and Emotional Problems:

A study of over 1,000 high school students ages 13-16 found that late-night texting and calling was not only associated with poor quality sleep, but more depressed moods, declines in self-esteem, and poor coping ability.

» Cyberbullying:

A 2017 study found that children in third to fifth grades with cellphones were more likely to report being a victim of cyberbullying, especially in grades three and four.

» Internet Exposure:

Though parents can monitor Internet use within the home, once a child has a cellphone (if it’s Internet-enabled), the child can browse the Internet unsupervised. After surveying 70,000 children over a period of 18 months, Jesse Weinberger—author of The Boogeyman Exists: And He’s In Your Child’s Back Pocket—stated that on average, sexting begins in fifth grade, pornography consumption begins when children turn 8, and pornography addiction begins around age 11.

» Addiction:

One recent study showed that one out of two teens felt addicted to their phones. Addiction, in turn, has been linked with negative effects on social life and relationships, decreased focus at school, and increased stress and anxiety.

How to Safely Manage a Child’s Cellphone Use

Considering these very serious risks, what should parents do about cellphone ownership?

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that for children ages 6 and older, parents should place consistent limits on time spent using any media (including cellphones), making sure it doesn’t interfere with sleep, physical activity, and other healthy behaviors.

While there is no expert recommendation on when to purchase a cellphone for a child, there are suggestions for how parents can make an informed decision.

First, consider the child’s personality and development, as that matters more than age. Some children mature more quickly than others. Those who are trustworthy, responsible, take good care of their possessions, and follow other rules of the household will be more likely to follow rules when it comes to cellphone use, too.

Next, consider whether the child really needs a phone, as there is a difference between need and want. It may make sense for kids who are traveling on their own or need to be in touch for safety reasons, but not for a child who simply wants to have a phone because their friend does.

Once parents decide to move forward with a purchase, they should consider these options:

» Start with a “dumbed-down” phone:

These have only calling and texting capabilities, and don’t allow access to the Internet or social media. See how the child handles this tool before moving on to a real cellphone or smartphone.

» Set up parent monitoring:

Most phones today offer features that parents can enable or disable, including the ability to restrict adult content on the Internet and prevent apps from using cellular data. There are also a number of apps that allow parents to monitor text messages, disable apps at certain times of the day, and block unapproved numbers.

» Set limits:

Make it clear what is acceptable behavior with a cellphone and what is not, and have real consequences for breaking the rules. Set time limits on using the phone, make sure they’re not in the bedroom overnight, and explain clearly that inappropriate selfies, browsing unapproved websites, communicating with unknown strangers, and other dangerous behaviors are not allowed.