Catherine Amores is shopping around for a new smartphone only it’s not for her. It’s for her 8-year-old son Jacob. The stay-at-home mom says she will feel safer if her second-grader has an iPhone with him at all times.
“Everything I see on the TV news makes me worry all the time. There was a school lockdown in our neighborhood recently. That’s why I think it is very important to get him a smartphone,” said the Hayward, Calif., mother of three. “Being able to get a hold of him immediately will give me peace of mind.”
As smartphones dominate our daily lives, many parents feel pressured to buy them for their children at younger and younger ages. Some, like Amores, fear losing touch with their kids in a crisis. Others believe the devices offer priceless educational opportunities or worry their kids will feel left out because their friends have phones.
By the age of 13, 83 percent of kids have their own phone — up from just 34 percent in 2012, according to a Common Sense Media report last year. And a widely cited 2016 report by Influence Central put the average age for a child to get a cellphone at about 10, though some experts say that is trending downward. As the age drops, parents are left wrestling with the question of how young is too young for a smartphone.
“Phones are status symbols especially in our tech-worshipping society. But it is parents’ responsibility to make the right call for each child, not just ‘because everyone has one,’ ” said Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media. “The risk with younger kids getting phones is that the devices are very powerful and require some level of maturity and responsibility.”
California students could soon be restricted or banned from using smartphones at school under a bill proposed by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, which would require schools to limit or prohibit the use of cellphones on school grounds. Experts have long warned that exposing children to smartphones too soon poses a long list of potential dangers, from health concerns to social setbacks.
“Research tells us that increased use of screens is associated with poorer academics, obesity, decreased fitness, reduced social interaction and disturbed sleep,” said Richard Bromfield, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
The very structure of the brain can be rewired by too much exposure to a smartphone as a child, scientists warn. Children who use smartphones and other screens for more than seven hours a day are more likely to experience premature thinning of the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain that processes thought and action, according to a 2018 study released by the National Institutes of Health.
Yet many parents feel that the risks of a scary world are more pressing worries. Amores wants to give her son a smartphone, instead of a flip phone, so she can video chat with him and pinpoint his location.
“I feel like there is no safe place anywhere,” Amores, 24, said. “If he has the phone on his body, we will be able to trace his location.”
Adamma Ison hasn’t gotten her 4-year-old son Jeremiah a smartphone, but she has let him use her Samsung so much he thinks it belongs to him. Jeremiah began watching YouTube to learn his letters, his numbers and the difference between an octagon and a hexagon around the age of two. She says the phone has been a great educational tool.
“It can be hard to hold a small child’s attention, but YouTube catches his attention and keeps it,” said Ison, 39, who lives in Vallejo, Calif. “It has helped him absorb complex information, expand his vocabulary and teach him life skills.”
Eighty one percent of parents with children age 11 or younger let their child watch videos on YouTube and 34 percent do so regularly, according to a report last year from the Pew Research Center. However, having the internet in your pocket also means running the risk of addiction to constant stimulation, doctors say.
“My biggest worry is the way too much smartphone, and social media in all its forms, trains a child’s brain to think about nothing but the latest tweet, text or ping,” said Bromfield. “I worry too that today’s children seem unable to tolerate their own company.”
That’s why Emma Wrankmore’s children don’t have phones. She worries they would distract her children, Blake, 10, and Natalie, 7, from the pleasures of childhood like climbing trees and playing tag with friends at the park while also exposing them to cyberbullying.
“I plan to hold out as long as I can,” said the Fremont, Calif., mother. “Elementary school feels too young to me. I will probably give in once the majority of the school class has them so I don’t feel cruel — but don’t know when that will be.”
Two years ago, Brooke Shannon started the online Wait Until 8th pledge, a national movement urging parents to hold off on smartphones until 8th grade or age 14. The pledge only kicks in when 10 other families in your kid’s grade and school have also signed up.
“We all got swept away by the tidal wave of technology. It’s been very normalized so that everywhere you go, you see little kids using smartphones,” said Shannon, who lives in Texas and started the effort after seeing legions of first- and second-graders with smartphones. “But the fact is that it’s not good for them.”
Parul Naresh, of Fremont, is also interested in putting off the day her son Veer, 8, gets his own handheld gadget.
“There’s too much inappropriate content, and it’s a super waste of time,” she said. “I wish I myself was never trapped into using it.”
But Ison sees it differently. She’s well aware that she has to constantly monitor what Jeremiah is watching on her phone. She said she would never use the phone as a babysitter.
“The parents who have trouble with technology are the ones who aren’t paying attention,” said Ison. “They aren’t really present with their kids. Technology is not permission to check out. You have to supervise it.”