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Today, for most parents it’s no longer a question of if you’ll get your child a cellphone, smartphone or tablet, but when.
Experts and parents alike, though, have been divided on what is the right age to give your child a smartphone. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has guidelines on recommended screen time for kids, there’s no long-term research yet on the effect of mobile phones on children or risks of prolonged screen time.
If you’re concerned about what age a child should get a cellphone or smartphone, here’s what the research has to say.
What’s the difference between a smartphone and a cellphone? A cellphone generally only allows you to call and text, while a smartphone can access the internet, therefore making it capable of downloading apps and browsing the web like a mini-computer.
How common are smartphones?
As of 2018, the majority of Americans (96%) own a cellphone, according to Pew Research Center data. But where mobile devices have seen the most growth is in the rise of smartphones.
“In 2020, the number of global smartphone users is projected to total 3.5 billion, marking a 9.3% increase from 2019,” according to Oberlo. “The current global population of 7.7 billion people means the smartphone penetration rate is at 45.4%. In other words, more than four out of every 10 people in the world are currently equipped with a smartphone.” And, “as expected, smartphone ownership is significantly higher across advanced economies including most European countries and the U.S., Australia, South Korea and Japan.”
What’s the average age that kids are getting cellphones?
The majority of children own a mobile phone by the age of seven,” according to a survey by Childwise of over 2,000 U.K. youngsters ages 5-16 years old, as reported in The Guardian. “Overall, children spend about three hours and 20 minutes each day messaging, playing games and being online.”
When is the right time to get your child a smartphone or tablet?
There are a few different theories about kids and cellphones. Here are some of the most popular.
The American Academy of Pediatrics Theory
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there’s no “right” age for children to start using technology. There’s also no rush. What’s important, they emphasize, is for parents to decide what makes sense for their children based on their family needs.
“We can keep the pace reasonable and developmentally appropriate and allow our kids to use technologies that make sense without granting them access to technologies that don’t make sense for their age,” the Academy states.
So, the Academy recommended introducing technology as needed and creating a Family Media Use Plan. This includes things like a media curfew, establishing technology values, discussing how the internet works, walking through use cases and more
The Bill Gates Theory
Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is clearly enthusiastic about the impact of technology on our world, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to hand over a smartphone to his kids at just any age.
Gates did an interview with The Mirror in 2017 where he confirmed that his three children didn’t get smartphones until the age of 14 — much to their displeasure. He added that the family also sets other usage and screen-time limits.
“We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier,” Gates said in the interview.
“We often set a time after which there is no screen time and in their case that helps them get to sleep at a reasonable hour.”
The Common Sense Media Theory
The nonprofit Common Sense Media has been providing “expert reviews, objective advice [and] helpful tools” on media and technology for kids since 2003. On their website, Common Sense Media emphasizes that what age should a child get a cellphone “is really up to you” and depends on your child’s maturity level, ability to follow rules and guidelines, sense of responsibility and the needs of your family.
However, James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, has said in interviews that for his family personally, the rule is no smartphone until after children start high school and even then only after “they have learned restraint and the value of face-to-face communication.”
Steyer does acknowledge that every family will be different, stating: “No two kids are the same, and there’s no magic number. A kid’s age is not as important as his or her own responsibility or maturity level.”
The Harvard Graduate School of Education Theory
According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it’s less about the right age for kids and cellphones and more about whether you’ve laid the groundwork on “healthy and responsible device use.”
Harvard recommends laying this ground by:
- Discussing the family values with your children
- Speaking with kids about technology, its uses, its effects, etc.
- Modeling and teaching responsible device use from a young age
- Understanding how your child is using technology and devices at school
- Reducing reliance on texting to communicate with your child
- Developing rules, guidelines and limits together
- Catering the rules to each child and allowing the rules to evolve with age
The Wait Until 8th Theory
Founded by a group of parents, the Wait Until 8th pledge “empowers parents to rally together to delay giving children a smartphone until at least 8th grade.” Parents can take the pledge to hold off on giving their child a smartphone until 8th grade or later and rally other parents in their school to join them to make the pledge “active.”
“Smartphones are distracting and potentially dangerous for children yet are widespread in elementary and middle school because of unrealistic social pressure and expectations to have one,” their website states.
Like other theories, Wait Until 8th acknowledges there may be times when you need to get in contact with your child. Instead of a smartphone, they recommend getting a basic phone that only allows calls and text without a data plan.
As we can see, it really depends on your family situation and your child. If you feel your child is responsible enough or there’s a family need for everyone to be connected, then the right time for your kids to have a smartphone may be sooner than other families — or it may be later.
The most important things to keep in mind are to:
- address the responsibility that comes with having a smartphone or tablet
- establish guidelines and screen-time limits
- set parental controls when necessary
- keep an eye out for cyberbullying
Cellphone plans for kids
Some wireless providers, such as Verizon, even have plans specifically for kids that allow you to monitor contacts, data usage, set filters and more. Similarly, AT&T offers its Secure Family App to let you track your kids’ locations, limit internet access and even pause your kids’ Wi-Fi access from your phone.
Not sure what cellphone to get for your kid? We picked out the best cellphones for kids of all ages.
Written by:Erin Gobler
Erin Gobler is a personal finance writer based in Madison, WI. She writes about topics including budgeting, student loans, credit, mortgages, investing, broadband and insurance. Including Allconnect.com, her wor… Read more
Edited by:Robin Layton
Editor, Broadband Content
Written by:Lisa Iscrupe
Writer, Broadband & Data Content
Lisa uses years of experience in sales and customer service for internet-TV providers to inform her writing on broadband. Her work has been referenced by CNN and other national sources. … Read more
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