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It has become one of the biggest questions for today’s parents: when should I let my child start using a smartphone, especially when it comes to social media?
The short, possibly glib answer is, whenever you think they’re ready. Children mature at different ages, so simply drawing a line at, say, age 18 isn’t necessarily the most prudent approach. But how young is too young?
Newborns and very young children being handed a smartphone to amuse themselves is a bad idea. Through age six, children should be developing social skills through interaction with their parents, siblings, playmates, and caregivers. Overreliance on smartphones, at any age, can negatively affect cognitive ability, social or emotional skills, and sleep.
As a general rule, experts recommend your child not be given their own phone until they are in middle school, at age 11-13. Most children at this age have developed such skills as problem-solving, impulse control, and critical thinking, which means they can probably handle having their own phone in a responsible manner. Many parents feel this is a good way to stay in touch as their child’s social and extracurricular activities increase.
According to a report published by the Pew Research Center, 73% of parents feel that it is acceptable for children to have their own phone after the age of 12. Around 45% say smartphone ownership is okay between the ages of 12 and 14, and 28% say it is all right between the ages of 15 and 17. Only 22% think it is acceptable for a child under 12 to have one.
But using a phone to call or message one’s parents is one thing; using it to access social media and message friends – and other peers – is quite another. Being the recipient, or conveyor, of cyberbullying is problematic at any age, but children under 12 are especially vulnerable as they may not have the critical-thinking skills needed to fully understand the potential consequences of posting an opinion online. To address this, Common Sense Media – a nonprofit that provides information and opinions to parents and educators – recommends getting phones with limited features and no internet access for younger children.
In any case, parents should have a discussion with their child to resolve a number of things before agreeing to get them a phone. Peer pressure is of course very difficult to fight against, but it is worth determining what the phone will be used for: schoolwork? Staying in touch? Accessing TikTok, Instagram, YouTube? Each has controls in place to prevent younger people from accessing their content – but an older acquaintance, or particularly enterprising children themselves, can usually find a way around those.
Parents should also set time limits on their children’s phone time, which of course is more easily enforced at a younger age than in the tween/teen years. One way to accomplish this – which can be challenging – is to limit your own phone time. Children model much of their behavior from their parents, after all. If this proves easier said than done, establish certain rules like “no phones during mealtimes” that everyone can observe. Another good idea for parents and children alike is to shut the phone off at least one hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted by your phone screen reduces the production of the hormone melatonin, which manages your sleep-wake cycle – making it harder to fall asleep and to wake up in the morning.
Some people have wondered if the influence of the phone isn’t all that different from past generations, when parents had to plead with their kids to stop watching TV or playing video games and go outside. While the situations are generally similar, the fact is that social media provides an entirely different situation. By directly sharing information and trading opinions with each other, youngsters can quickly find themselves exposed to cyberbullying, body shaming/eating disorders, and other traumatic experiences.
If all of this seems overwhelming – and, with the lack of specific laws surrounding the issue, possibly confusing – seek the advice of your pediatrician. They can help you strategize how to address the situation, and provide important tips directly to your children as well.
Dr. Debra Etelson is a board-certified pediatrician at White Plains Hospital Physician Associates in Somers. To make an appointment, call 914-849-7075.
The original version of this article was published in Health Matters, a White Plains Hospital publication.