Many parents wonder about these questions. This guide aims to answer these questions. The issue is also personal. Both of my kids got cell phones before they went to middle school. The decision to provide my kids with cell phones—and the ongoing negotiations about how and when to use them—left me wondering about how cell phones can affect their lives.
Cell phones offer some clear benefits to parents and kids. Most notably, keeping in touch: knowing where they’re at, knowing when they’ll be home, being available if they need someone to talk to.
In an era where families are spread across the country, cell phones can be great ways of staying in touch with friends and family that we might not otherwise see. Moreover, many people find supportive communities of like-minded people online, and they can stay in touch with them through their phones.
Cell phones also come with clear downsides. For one, using cell phones before bed increases sleep loss. Phones also make learning worse and have a small but clear link with anxiety and depression. The cancer question is still unknown.
We often don’t realize the costs. Consider phones and memories. One of the frequent uses of cell phones is to take pictures and post them on social media—pictures of food, vacations, workouts, and other experiences. Ironically, doing so could lead to worse memories for the events themselves.
Much depends on how the photo is taken. Taking photos can lead to richer memories for the visual aspects of the specific thing being photographed (as you’re taking the photo, you’re likely paying attention to how it looks), but at the expense of remembering more about the surrounding environment.
Cultural change can also impact our views of prior research. One of the largest cohort studies found that using the phone for a half-hour a day was extremely high use.
Part 1. The Dangers of Cell Phones Are Real
Phones don’t have to ring to negatively impact learning outcomes. Just the mere presence of phones can impair memory. This seems particularly acute among people who report feeling dependent on their phones. The overall effect, however, hasn’t always been replicated in follow-up studies.
Put differently, it seems that the effects of cell phone usage may diminish over time since cell phone use fluctuates. For example, there may be days or even weeks at a time where you are glued to your phone due to work or personal reasons. Then, there may be long stretches of time where you barely look at your phone such as on a vacation with your family for instance.
What about long-term use? There aren’t many studies addressing this question. One study found the amount that you use your phone / your phone behaviors at age 9 are associated with negative test scores later. According to this research, “later is better.” Students who didn’t get cell phones by 9 years of age significantly outperformed their peers who had gotten cell phones by that age.
“The greater the time spent talking on a cell phone, the lower the reading proficiency scores of children and adolescents.” In short, prolonged cell phone usage at a young age alters a child’s ability to absorb information and excel in their education later in life. This could affect their admission chances when it comes time for college.
This evidence builds on other evidence around if technology in the classroom helps or harms students. Here, the evidence is more mixed. Some studies show that technology has little relationship with student outcomes. Others show more positive results.
Sleep loss seems particularly acute for those who report high dependency on their phone (e.g., they feel as though they “need” their phone or can’t live without it). One study found that young adults who reported feeling dependent on their phones got roughly two-and-a-half fewer hours of sleep per night than their peers.
Sleep deprivation is associated with various forms of cognitive dysfunction. It can cause a loss of focus, or difficulty paying attention. This can drastically affect school performance. Reaction time will be reduced, since the brain is too exhausted and you will be at a delay. Sleep deprivation also causes a loss of creativity and spark more emotionally driven reasoning.
Without sleep, someone usually filled with new and fresh ideas might find themselves grasping at straws, and problem-solving skills will be diminished as well. Lack of sleep also causes forgetfulness. Without proper rest, short-term memories remain as they are, unable to be developed into long-term ones.
Blue light filters can reduce some of the physiological effects, but the best thing to do is to leave the cell phone off (or out of reach) for the hour or so before bed.
There are some reasons why this doesn’t necessarily apply to cell phones, however. Tablets and cell phones are often used interactively (instead of just passively). They are portable and can be used in different contexts. When used with someone else, they can promote joint attention, as with looking together at a photo, a video, or a game.
All of these aspects of cell phones make them potentially less harmful than spending time in front of a TV, but if children are passively watching videos on their phone for hours on end, the usual recommendations against screen time apply.
High social media use, however, may very well cause unhappiness for a variety of reasons. It can lead to social comparison- basing one’s self-worth and value on what others are doing. People tend to compare or try to replicate what they view on social media. It is also very addictive, there is no shortage of new and exciting info to click on when it comes to social feeds. Social media also discourages in-person communication since it is much simpler and quicker to communicate online. Social media platforms are also unrealistic. The image many people portray online and many others may be envious of is often quite exaggerated and far from reality.
There are also, however, some more subtle impacts that cell phones seem to make. People with phones around, for example, smile less often (and less genuinely) at strangers. Another study suggests that frequent phone use can lead to less self-reflection among young adults. A final summary of recent research suggests that the presence of smartphones simply diminishes the richness and depth of social relationships.
Other research suggests that the rise of smartphone use has fueled a recent increase in depression and suicide among teenagers. If so, the authors argue that one of the main reasons for the link is diminished face-to-face interpersonal time, which tends to improve mood.
The Cancer Question
There are studies that find a connection between cancer rates and cell phone use. There are also studies that find no connection. There are publicly funded studies and industry-funded studies, and there are conflicting interpretations about what the very same study shows.
Cultural change can also impact our views of prior research. One of the largest cohort studies found that using the phone for a half-hour a day was extremely high use. That looks like peanuts compared to how often people glue themselves to their phones.
Technological change can also make prior research outdated: the switch from analog to digital technology, for example, lowered the average power levels of phones. So then the question was, even if there was a link before, is there a link now with new lower power levels? New technology (like the switch to 5G) can also mean higher power levels than before, raising the opposite question: if there wasn’t a link before, might there be now?
The upshot is: scientists are still divided on this issue, but frequent long-term use of cell phones (on the order of years and many hours a day) seems to be associated with increased risk for certain forms of cancers and tumors. The mechanisms behind this aren’t well understood, and multiple large studies are ongoing to test the link between the two, especially the risk to children.
There are many reasons why children could be more vulnerable. Children’s skulls are thinner than adults’. Their overall size is smaller, and their brains have more water, potentially increasing the risk. If you start using a phone early, there will be prolonged exposure, affecting you in the long-term.
The increased risk is probably quite small, and it seems to require a lot of use to increase your risk. That said, it just seems prudent to avoid excessive use.
The further the antenna is away from your head, the better. So headsets, video chats, anything that keeps the phone away from your head is good. When phones are trying to find a signal they use more power; that’s why you might find differences between rural areas, whose antennas are (generally speaking) further away, and urban areas, whose antennas tend to be closer. Turning off your antenna entirely when you’re not using it (i.e., putting your phone into airplane mode or simply turning it off) is another way of avoiding excessive exposure.
Model the behavior you want to see. It is important that you exhibit disciplined and healthy phone usage around your child to set a proper example.
Part 2: Is Your Child Ready For a Phone?
Let’s first look at the data. When do most parents actually give their kids phones?
Additionally, a 2016 study from Influence Central concluded that 10.3 years old was the average age that kids received their first smartphone. The study also revealed that in 2012, the age that children got their first smartphone was 12. More kids are getting cell phones and earlier.
There is, of course, a social aspect to this trend. If one child in a school has a phone at a young age, other children are likely to want one. This, in turn, will push their parents to give in to the begging and pleading, further lowering the age most kids get their first smartphone.
At the same time that the age is down, others are still waiting. Take the Wait Until 8th for example. It is an online campaign that supports and provides resources for parents who are waiting until their child is at least in the 8th grade to give them a smartphone. Currently, there have been more than 2,100 families that pledged, representing more than 500 schools.
The goal of the campaign is to rally together against the social pressure of having a smartphone, and to encourage more non-phone use activities, such as playing outdoors, reading, writing, and spending time with friends and family. The online campaign also encourages parents to buy their children basic phones in the meantime if communication is a huge concern.
Context is crucial when it comes to cell phones and deciding when exactly kids are ready, and even once you’ve given your child a cellphone you may face other challenges. Consider that distracted driving is one of the primary risks of cell phones. It is also one of the most well-studied ones.
By one estimate, distracted driving causes around 6,000 deaths per year. Young, inexperienced drivers are already at high risk for driving accidents when compared with older, more experienced drivers. They’re less likely to see hazards, more likely to take risks, and more likely to overestimate their abilities.
So no one should be using cell phones while driving, but young adults especially. The impact of phones on driving comes primarily from being distracted—through visuals, sounds, physically using the phone, or just thinking about it. So “hands-free” phones do not eliminate the risk. Conversations on a cell phone are qualitatively different from in-person passenger conversations (which can also distract drivers, but to a much lesser extent). Texting is particularly dangerous, involving visual, cognitive, and physical distractions.
The solution? Turn phones off or use airplane mode when driving. If using GPS, set it up beforehand and leave it alone until you reach your destination.
Most kids who get a cell phone are not driving, however, and for parents, the questions are a bit different. What will my child do on the phone? Are they going to post or see inappropriate photos? How much time will they spend on the phone? You want your child to be safe and use the phone in a mature way. It is also hard to monitor every last thing on the phone. Children should know the consequences of their actions and how powerful their phones can be.
There are a number of ways to measure a child’s maturity. Do they make mature decisions like finishing their homework without being told or keeping commitments they’ve made? Does your child say “please” and “thank you?” In order to be ready for a phone your child should have a firm grasp of these simple tasks and also understand what it means to be kind and respectful to others even if they aren’t in return. Mature children know what needs to be done in their day-to-day lives and they handle it, not because they are told to, but because it is what they are supposed to do. Mature children are polite and grateful, even for the simplest of things.
Take note of your child’s behavior. Do they get good grades in school, and show up to class or sports practice on time? How do they treat others? If your child has trouble managing their time and prioritizing the most important aspects of their life, or has a bad attitude, they can not be expected to handle the power of a cell phone in a responsible way. If they can’t understand why they shouldn’t act a certain way that may be hurtful to their education or even hurtful to others (bullying for example) the decisions they make when it comes to a cell phone will not be any better.
An important factor in social awareness is self-control, particularly in stressful situations. Your child should be able to handle their emotions and express them in a healthy way. If they are angry at a fellow classmate, for example, your child should use their words and try to remedy the issue. Failing at that, they should consult their teacher or another adult of authority. Hitting or pushing another child out of anger is an impulse move, which means it is done without much thought. In being socially aware, a child sees an issue, and considers how their actions towards it will affect not only them but also the other people involved.
How does your child handle stressful social situations? If they are able to effectively communicate what they are feeling and thinking without lashing out, that is a very valuable skill. It is essential that your child fully grasp the importance of how their social behavior impacts others. If your child can behave in the proper way in a social setting, they will be just fine when it comes to owning a cell phone. You will not have to worry about them treating others poorly online or sending mean messages if they have already demonstrated social maturity and self-control.
A Screen’s Negative Impact on ADHD
It is important to take note of how you behave because children mimic what they see. A good way to ensure that screen time rules are followed by your children is to follow those rules yourself. This way your children can see the importance of limiting screen time. After all, if you’re doing it too, it must be a big deal. So, at mealtimes or during family activities put your phone away as well. Also, when it is time to put phones away at bedtime, make it known that you are putting yours away as well. Being fully present while spending time with your family will help demonstrate how critical it is not only to not be immersed in a screen 24/7, but it will also help your child truly appreciate family time which means eventually they won’t even think about their phone too much.
Cell phones also come with clear downsides. For one, using cell phones before bed increases sleep loss. Phones also make learning worse and have a small but clear link with anxiety and depression.
Part 3: So Your Child Is Ready For a Phone. What’s next?
First: Types Of Phones
Newer flip phones come with a back and front camera and some even have fingerprint ID. This phone might not give in to your child’s need for a smartphone but you will be able to keep in contact with them at all times.
One phone that’s a step up is a phone built specifically for children. Most of them are water repellent, durable and strong. It might look like a real Apple or Android smartphone but it’s not. These phones, because of the design for kids, are very safe. Your child will only have access to portions of kid-safe websites while the phones still text and message like normal. Some of these kids’ phones can be linked to a parent’s phone, where the adult can control callers and apps being downloaded. This is a great start for a younger kid, as the phone can grow with them, and when the kid matures they can get a new phone.
Another option for a phone is an average Smartphone. While this is what most kids have, Smartphones can often be too expensive and too much power. You can reach dangerous parts of the internet that are harmful. It’s important to make sure your child knows this and to talk with them before handing over the smartphone. On the positive side, Smartphones come in lots of different colors, shapes, and with different software. With a speedy internet connection, your kid will be able to get online and download social media and games. Apps can be downloaded for parents to monitor phone usage and set bedtimes. Newer phones have amazing camera quality and massive amounts of storage. It’s very easy to stay in contact with your kids and call when necessary. For the children, this is the phone that they dream of.
In the case of our family, we gave our oldest daughter an iPhone 5se to start in 6th grade. When that broke we gave her an iPhone 7+. These were both good options because she needed to communicate with us and the phones did that job well. For our younger daughter we gave her an Ipad mini in 4th grade and moved to an iPhone 6 in 6th grade. These were good options. The IPad allowed her to talk to friends, but not overuse it. The iPhone 6 let us communicate with her easily.
Sample Contract 1
I, your child’s name, agree to follow these rules about my new Cellphone.
-I will only spend 2 hours on weekdays and 2.5 on weekends.
-I will turn my phone in at 10:30pm every night to a parent.
-I can have Social Media as long as I allow my parents to follow me and don’t post anything inappropriate. The account will also be private.
– If I break any of these rules the Cellphone will be taken for two days.
I, the parents name, agree to follow these rules about my child’s new Cellphone.
-I will not overreact if my child doesn’t follow these rules, only implement the said punishment.
-I will follow the outline of rules that have been discussed, not making up new ones without discussion.
-If either of us would like to change or discuss a new rule, we will sit down and develop the idea together.
Part 4: What KIDS Need to Know
As amazing as these small electronics are, they can be very dangerous. Since phones are such new inventions we haven’t had the chance to consider how they affect us in the long term. One long term effect is- diminished attention span. People have shown that their ability to hold a sustained attention span decreases with the more time they spend on the phone. This is because prolonged exposure to these devices alters brain activity, making it difficult to focus on our daily tasks. When you are consumed with everything going on in your mobile device, you might find that notifications pull you away from what is most important.
Studies have also shown that the blue light filters that phones use can change sleep schedules because the light tricks your mind into thinking that it’s daytime. These are just some reasons to disconnect more.
There are many ways you can combat the negative effects of blue light. Blue light glasses block their harmful rays from coming through as much, giving your eyes a much needed break. You can limit your screen time as much as possible depending on your lifestyle, but when you have to look at your screen try setting your device to “night mode.” This will limit the strain on your eyes as well. About an hour before bedtime, put your phone away. Incoming notifications and text messages will distract you and keep you awake for longer as you get lost in social media or conversations with friends.
Our primary goal is to help you learn the dangers of using your phone so you can stay safe and learn to be mindful of these powerful objects.
We created this little acronym to help you remember how to be responsible while using electronics. The acronym is called SAFE. At some point, we will make this into a checklist. But for now, there’s this.
Stay Away From Dangers
Another danger is inappropriate content. The internet has all sorts of small corners and dark webs where people post inappropriate things. People on the web can also say and do inappropriate actions. If you happen to stumble upon one of these things, just exit.
If you aren’t sure if you should be watching something or not, think about the grandma rule.
This rule is: if you don’t feel comfortable showing it to your grandma, then don’t watch it.
As an example, if someone was researching an event and suddenly went down an unfamiliar rabbit hole, they would remember the grandma rule. If the rabbit hole was showing something that would make their grandma feel weird if she saw, then the person would leave the site.
Before you post something you need to keep in mind who’s going to see it and if you really want it online.
Another part of being accountable is being nice. What you might not have the guts to say in real life, or think that no one’s going to hear, can be spread easily on the internet. It can also hurt someone. Be responsible for what you say and think about how what you say affects people.
This makes it super hard to focus on more important things, like schoolwork. When you’re trying to do homework or work on a project leave your phone in another room. This way you won’t be able to hear the constant dings or look over and wonder if anyone responded. You can turn all your attention to the work and then have time to look at your phone later.
In my household, the limit is an hour and fifteen minutes during the week and two hours on the weekend. We sat down and talked about what would work best for everyone, not too much and not too little. These rules will help to avoid excessive phone time while still allowing them to enjoy the device to the full extent. I encourage you to print out the SAFE rules and guidelines along with everything else I’ve emphasized in Chapter 4 and share it with your child. If this information remains in their sight on a daily basis, it will remain in their brain as well.
Let us know how your family has dealt with these issues in the comments. We’d love to know more.