How Young Is Too Young for a Cellphone?

by Thomas Walk - Apr 12, 2017 Category: Family
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Have you ever seen a child look at the page of a traditional book, and then try to swipe it with his or her little finger, thinking it was a tablet?

That is the world we live in. Almost everybody born in the past 17 years has grown up or is in the process of growing up with cellphones, tablets, computers, smart TVs and many other electronic devices that can access the Internet. Some parents see an obvious benefit to letting their children adopt cellphones early.

Many of us only became acquainted with this technology after we were already adults, and we adopted it at varying speeds. Because many early adopters didn’t quite grasp the various uses of social media, it has taken them years to catch up to an ever-changing field. Children on the other hand, have the advantage of nimble minds and fingers, and many parents think letting them adopt smartphones early will help them in the long-run.

However, there are some very good reasons to keep smartphones, tablets, and computers out of the hands of your children during the crucial stages of their development. Expert opinions differ as to when is a good time to let kids use cellphones, but it seems that high school or later would be the best bet.

Here are some reasons why children should be restricted from using smartphones.

Addiction

Smartphones are addictive. Ask any addiction counselor and they will give you an earful as to why. In a nutshell, use of social media causes a release of endorphins in your body. Endorphins make you feel good. They tell you when you are satisfied by food, when you are happy, when life is good. Sex releases endorphins, as does eating, doing drugs, extreme sports, and even pain. The chime of a received message on a smartphone releases endorphins as well.

Rather than let children become smartphone zombies, parents should encourage them to play sports, play with physical toys, puzzles, musical instruments.
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 All of these can become addictive in one way or another, and as adults, we often flirt with or go over the deep end with these potentially addictive behaviors. But as adults, some of us (obviously not all) are better equipped to handle the potentially negative side effects of endorphin addiction. Children, on the other hand, are not. Something that feels good to a child is just that — something that feels good. They have no concept that something which feels good might be bad for them if done to the extreme. The only way they can gain this concept is through education and experience, and that only comes with age.

Rather than let children become smartphone zombies, parents should encourage them to play sports, play with physical toys, puzzles, musical instruments. It is better to give them a chance to develop their executive function reasoning before letting them learn how to play Candy Crush and send messages to friends on Facebook.

Security

The Internet is awesome and scary at the same time. Children can access the sum total of humanity’s knowledge and experience on Wikipedia. They can also view beheadings on necrophilia sites and any type of sex act one could imagine on porn sites. Kids can chat with a professor about physics in a country halfway around the world. They could also start up a chat conversation with pedophile posing as another child. 

Many parents attempt to restrict their child’s access to the Internet while allowing them to use smartphones. The idea is to let their kids have access to all the good content that is on the internet, while protecting them from the negative content. But this method doesn’t always work. Just as soon as a parent sets up safe viewing parameters on Google, nefarious sites change their tactics and attract traffic through a different channel not blocked by parent settings. Although Facebook is the biggest social media platform out there and many parents watch who their children Friend, it is not the only social media site. There are thousands of sites of which most parents have probably never heard. 

Cellphone addiction is a problem with children.
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Cellphone addiction is a problem with children.

Moreover, despite the best efforts of parents to protect their children, kids can just install a VPN or some other software to get around the parents safety controls. Bad people can pose as friendly to attract the attention of kids. It’s a minefield out there. And the only effective way to teach a child how to navigate this minefield without getting hurt is to restrict their use of smartphones until they have gained the education and experience that only comes with age. Children need to have a good lens with which they can sift through the mountains of fake news and dangerous content online.

That lens only comes with age, experience, and education.

Privacy

Just about every site we sign up for asks for some information about you. Your name, email address, metadata, phone number, etc. The security questions many sites ask you can get interesting tidbits about a child’s life, like where he goes to school, who was his first crush, what was her favorite toy, what street she lives on. A lot of the sites asking these questions are legitimate, secure sites. But many are not. And even the secure sites can get hacked.

On top of that, adults and children alike love to play these social media games where somebody asks you your favorite this or favorite that, and thousands of people fill in their metadata. People are throwing out all kinds of private information about themselves for hackers, marketers, and search engine spiders to peruse.

Children do the same, with even less idea of the dangers than adults. Think of all the games that kids like to play online. How many of those games ask a few innocent sounding questions before allowing the child to play? Most of them.

Moreover, in social media groups, kids are more at risk of revealing private information than adults. The stuff they write is often public and can be viewed by anybody.

Distraction

The brain development of children requires that they interact with the world around them. Cellphones and video games create a decidedly artificial world. Allowing children to spend inordinate amounts of time in the artificial world created by their cellphones distracts them from the real world and slows the development of real social skills needed by all people.

"Kids develop and learn by exploring things in the world around them," says Andrew Smith, a lecturer at National Donghwa University in Hualien County, Taiwan. "And I think outdoor play is particularly important for brain development. Time spent staring at a screen is precious time that could have been spent exploring the real world."

Social skills are learned by interacting with people in the real world, not by chatting with strangers online. Spacial awareness is learned by playing in playgrounds and kicking balls, not by driving the fastest car on Super Mario Cart. It is essential that children are allowed to develop as children, not as cellphone addicts.

Cyberbullying

It is a fact of life that bullying occurs in schools and on sports pitches. But in most cases, there are adults, supervisors and peers to turn to before things get out of hand. That is not the case online. A child is on his or her own when surfing the web. Cyberbullying can become so severe that it could lead to death.

In July 2015, 13-year-old Zoe Johnson committed suicide in the Michigan after suffering from depression caused by years of cyberbullying. After her death, bullies posted “glad ur gone” on her Facebook page. In the same year in Nevada, 14-year-old Carla Jamerson, another victim of rampant cyberbullying, took her own life after complaining to police and city officials about the online attacks. She received no help before hanging herself.

Our best intentions are not enough

Parents try to prevent all these negative consequences of allowing their kids to use smartphones by monitoring their use, setting parental control parameters, and discussing with their children in an open manner the good and the bad of using a cellphone.

Kids develop and learn by exploring things in the world around them. And I think outdoor play is particularly important for brain development. Time spent staring at a screen is precious time that could have been spent exploring the real world.
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Andrew Smith, National Donghwa University lecturer

But these methods don’t work

Children can use proxy sites to hide their searches from their parents. They can also figure out their parents passwords and change the settings. Or change their own passwords so their parents can’t get in the phone. If your home Wi-Fi has parental parameters, kids can just piggyback on a neighbor’s Wi-Fi, or go use an open Wi-Fi at a cafe. They could download and install a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that hides all their traffic from their parents. They could install their own internet browsers and use the incognito function to search without saving any history. Children could use the search function in Google, then click on the image search to bypass the safe search filter.

Small children will likely not be able to figure out all these means to bypass parental controls, but teenagers sure will. So how do parents protect their children from these dangers?

The best method are time and education. Parents should encourage their children to develop people skills before allowing them to use cellphones. This includes knowing how to protect oneself from bullying, why bullying is a bad thing to do, and that there are bad people online who lie and do harm. They should also be taught how to judge for themselves the differences between fake news and real information.

And even more important is time. A child should be given the necessary time it takes to develop socially and mentally before he or she is allowed access to all the knowledge of humanity, both good and bad. If this means not keeping a smartphone out of a child’s hands, then it is worth considering.


There are devices out there that can harness the power of the internet without opening a child up to all of its dangers.

Consequences of youth mobile phone use
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Consequences of youth mobile phone use

Benefit from the internet without smartphones

For example, many parents want to use GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking to know where their children are when traveling. They would also like their kids to have a cellphone so they can call someone if they need to.

That’s why Turtler GPS Ltd. is developing a device with the functions of a cellphone, but not the drawbacks of a smartphone. The Turtler tracking device can make two-way calls to pre-set phone numbers, while also sending packets of information that make it possible for parents to know their kids are safe.

The internet is here to stay, for better or worse. We just need to learn how to live with it and raise our children in the best possible way to harness the good and reject the bad.