The decision of when to give your child their first phone is not one that you should take lightly. While many resources on the internet will simply tell you to give them a phone around the ages of 10 to 13, the decision is far more complex and has many far-reaching consequences. In reality, your child’s temperament, the way they handle relationships, and their ability to discern reliable information are all more important than how old they are.
But while there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, most experts will agree that later tends to be better than sooner—even if most of their peers are likely to have a phone already. In this article, we will explore eight reasons why younger children should not have a phone. But first, let’s look at two exceptions where having a phone at an early age might be justified:
- Safety and Communication: There may be circumstances where a child’s safety and communication needs justify having a phone at a younger age. For example, if a child regularly travels alone or requires a reliable means of contacting parents or guardians in emergencies, a phone can provide peace of mind for both the child and parents. In these cases, a “dumb phone” or other device that’s primarily geared to calling and texting may be the best option. You can also look for the best SIM-only plans designed for children for various child-friendly features.
- Special Circumstances or Needs: Children with special circumstances or needs, such as medical conditions or disabilities, may benefit from having a fully featured smartphone to access specific apps, assistive technologies, or communication tools. In such cases, phones can offer a net benefit, supporting their unique requirements and enhancing their quality of life. However, in many cases, you may still want to limit the use of the device in various situations, for the reasons we’ll give below.
Reasons to Delay Giving a Phone to Your Child
A recent meta-study of 130 papers that monitored children’s screen time found that a majority of the literature associated at least a few negative effects with early phone and tablet use. Additionally, many parents also report multiple drawbacks with giving phones to younger childre. Here are some of the effects associated with regular screen time at early ages:
- Limited Social Interaction: Younger children greatly benefit from face-to-face interactions with their peers and adults. As with many other types of life skills, face-to-face social interactions require regular practice. Introducing a phone at a young age can reduce opportunities for face-to-face interactions and hinder their social development, as they may become too engrossed in virtual communication, which tends to be less engaging compared to meaningful real-life connections.
- Cognitive Delays and Impairment: Children, especially younger ones, need a balanced and healthy approach to screen time. Their young brains are still rapidly developing and too much early screen time can prevent more holistic development. Introducing a phone too early can also impair reward mechanisms in their brains, potentially impacting their physical health, disrupting sleep patterns, and delaying cognitive development.
- Cyberbullying and Online Safety: Younger children may not possess the necessary skills to navigate the digital landscape responsibly. They may be more susceptible to cyberbullying, online predators, and exposure to inappropriate content, which can have detrimental effects on their emotional well-being and safety. What’s more, the resulting impairments in emotional development may also make them more susceptible to becoming perpetrators of cyberbullying and other antisocial behaviours themselves.
- Distraction from Learning: Younger children should focus on foundational learning skills such as reading, writing, critical thinking, and prosocial interactions. Having a phone or tablet ready at all times can act as a constant distraction, diverting their attention away from educational activities and hindering their academic progress.
- Lack of Responsibility: While some children are more precocious than others, younger children may not possess the maturity or responsibility needed to handle a phone appropriately. They might misplace or damage the device, incur excessive charges, or misuse it in ways that could lead to negative consequences.
- Negative Impact on Physical Activity: Providing younger children with a phone may discourage them from engaging in physical activities and outdoor play. Instead of spending time exploring and participating in active pursuits, they may become sedentary, contributing to a less healthy lifestyle. This is especially concerning as bad lifestyle habits learned in childhood may negatively impact a person for the rest of their life.
- Development of Foundational Real-Life Skills: To succeed in the real world, children should be more exposed to real-world issues. While phones can be truly beneficial, relying on a phone for various tasks can hinder a child’s ability to function without one. Generally speaking, real-life experiences are better at teaching a child empathy, productive decision-making, and other critical skills that are often lacking today.
- Financial Considerations: Phones come with costs beyond the initial purchase. Additional expenses, such as monthly plans, data usage, and app purchases, can burden families financially. Younger children may not fully grasp the value of money or understand the financial implications of owning a phone, which can result in kids racking up bills that their families cannot easily afford.
At the end of the day, the decision of when to give your child a phone should be based not on their exact age but on a thoughtful evaluation of their individual needs and maturity level, as well as the potential benefits and drawbacks. If you do decide to give your child a phone, be sure to set clear guidelines and monitor their phone usage. By doing so, you’ll keep them safe and better ensure their holistic development.