700 Children's Blog

Children and Cell Phones: Weighing the Risks and Benefits

Oct 02, 2018
image of five kids looking at cell phones

We live in a world full of technology and, for many of us, our children understand it better than we do.  Parents may feel pressured by their children to provide them with a cell phone at an early age, but aren’t sure when children are actually ready for this responsibility.    

When is the right time for your child to get their first cell phone? 

In short, there is no good answer to that question. Many parents will begin to think about providing their child with a phone during the middle school years, when kids are more likely to be involved in after school activities and more likely to be home alone. According to a Nielsen report released in February 2017, approximately 45 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 10-12 had their own smartphone with a service plan.  

Consider the Benefits

  • The ability to communicate in emergency situations. Many families don’t have home phones and public pay phones are a thing of the past.
  • Opportunities for social contact with peers – texting, use of social media and (less likely) actually talking on the phone.
  • Ability to gain immediate knowledge for personal or academic use – even in elementary school it’s hard to do school work without electronic access to apps, web research and Google docs.
  • Entertainment – What kid doesn’t want to spend hours watching people do silly things on YouTube?

Explore the Risks

Is your child responsible enough to carry a cell phone? If they often can’t find their shoes or homework, should you really provide them with an expensive phone?

What about the impact on health? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released information about exposure to radiation from cell phone usage. Risks of media in general include obesity (due to sedentary screen time), decreased sleep and distractibility contributing to poorer academic performance (because YouTube is more interesting than math).

What can go wrong socially? Thinking about your child’s maturity level and ability to recognize social cues is important.

  • Do they understand that repeatedly texting a friend with no response from the friend could be considered annoying? 
  • Are they aware that anything they post on social media accounts can be used against them in the future (see many examples from athletes, politicians and celebrities who thought their past was behind them)?  
  • Research has suggested that children in the third through fifth grade who owned a cell phone were particularly vulnerable to cyberbullying and that they had been cyberbullies themselves.  
  • According to the AAP it is estimated that 12 percent of 10-19 year old youth have sent a sexual photo to someone else.  

The Bottom Line

In general, setting guidelines and limits up front is their (and our) best opportunity for success.  Here are some ideas:

Limit the amount of time spent on the phone. 
  • Experts suggest no screens for at least one hour before bedtime, so consider having your child turn in their phone in the evening. Remove your child’s phone from their room at night so the temptation of a late night “hello” or, worse, with friends, is not there. 
  • Create a distraction-free homework time where cell phones are put away. 
  • Consider “phone free” meals or family times during the day (yes, that means you too, parents!) to promote communication and relationship building.

Require children provide parents with cell phone, email and social media passwords.

  • Do random checks of text messages and other phone content. 
  • Consider using parental controls on the phone and apps. 
  • Be your child’s social media friend to keep tabs on what they are posting. 
  • Educate yourself on the latest apps. 
  • Be honest and let them know you will be holding them accountable from the beginning so that there are no surprises.

Communicate openly with your child about the risks of cell phone usage. 

  • Help them understand safe websites, recognize cyberbullying and the risks of chat rooms and communication with “friends” you’ve never met before. 
  • Promote open communication and questions by actively listening, withholding judgement and corrections and allowing them autonomy to problem solve when appropriate.
Consider developing a Family Media Use Plan. Use the tool www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan as a starting point. 

Featured Expert

Kelly Wesolowski, PsyD
Big Lots Behavioral Health Services

Kelly Wesolowski, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who has been with Nationwide Children’s Hospital since 2005. She is currently the clinical lead supervisor for the Westerville Behavioral Health team.  Dr. Wesolowski also serves as an associate track director for the clinical child track of the psychology internship program. She is an instructor for ADHD Academy programs and an Incredible Years facilitator. Her clinical interests include assessment and treatment of ADHD, anxiety, and behavior disorders.  Dr. Wesolowski spends much of her time providing clinical supervision and training for behavioral health clinicians and psychology trainees.    

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700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.