Children today, as young as 6 or 7 years old, have their own cell phones. As awesome as it is to have your child connected to you and the world, is this really a good thing?
Parents are facing difficult decisions when it comes to choosing the proper age to give their children a cell phone and how much “access” they need or deserve at certain ages. Not only is this a difficult decision, but parents must also consider the health dangers of cell phone use at very early ages.
Typically there’s one main reason to give your child a phone: if they’re often out of sight of trustworthy adults and need to contact you or another caregiver in case of an emergency.
Many cautionary parents wait until their children are at least ten years old or so to give them their first cell phone, some may even give their kids a flip phone with no internet access until the child is a little older and more responsible. However many parents may not give this decision much thought (perhaps they need the cell phone to be their babysitter) and will provide their little munchkins “all-access” wifi and cell phone service- regardless if their kid is 5 or 13 years old.
Across Europe, about 46% of children 9 to 16 own a smartphone, according to a study published in the journal New Media & Society in 2015. (The study surveyed about 3,500 children in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Romania and the United Kingdom between 2013 and 2014.)
“Back in 2014, around 80% of children owned either a mobile phone or a smartphone; 46% owned a smartphone and 33% a mobile phone,” said Giovanna Mascheroni, a senior lecturer at the Università Cattolica of Milan in Italy and lead author of the study.
“Children in Italy and the UK were more likely to be restricted at school. They had no access to Wi-Fi and had to turn off their smartphones, whereas children in Denmark reported using the smartphone for class activities more frequently,” Mascheroni said.
In the United States, cell phone ownership seems to begin at a younger age. In a Nielsen report released in February 2017, about 45% of US children 10 to 12 had smartphones with a service plan, as opposed to just using Wi-Fi. About 22% around age 10 had smartphones, 15% at ages 9 or 11, and 16% around age 8, according to the report.
A separate report released in November 2017 by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media found that 42% of US children 8 and younger now have their own tablet devices. It seems that outside the US and Europe, children tend to own their first mobile phones when they are older.
What are the dangers of cell phones, tablets, and children? Psychiatrist Dr. David Rosenberg and Psychologist Dr. Preeya Taormina (Researchers at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and Wayne State University) hooked two children up to sensors that measure how stimulating an activity is by monitoring their sweat gland activity.
The sensors showed a tablet is much more stimulating than other activities. Plus, children’s moods changed. “Playing a game on a tablet causes a release of neurotransmitters that make you feel better, make you feel awake,” said Dr. Taormina. The risk is, if unchecked, a child could pursue that digital high again and again until it becomes an unhealthy habit that impacts their brain function.
Dr. Rosenberg showed MRI images of the brains of children with an internet addiction, showing how the activity in the brain decreases. “The brain shuts down, and its executive functioning is not working.” He says a brain hooked on the internet, phones, or tablets looks very similar to a brain hooked on heroin.
A study from Italy released in March of this year, reported that male rats exposed to radio-frequency radiation at levels including those emitted by cellphones had a higher chance of developing malignant brain cancer, and tumors in the heart and other organs.
“The Italian study reinforces the need for a precautionary approach when it comes to radiation from phones and other devices, especially for young kids,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., senior science advisor at EWG. “Children’s bodies develop through the teenage years and may be more affected by cellphone use. As new telecom networks are built around the country, in-depth assessment of children’s health risks from cell phone radiation is essential.” You can find more details about the study here.
All in all, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that there is no “right” age to expose your child to screens or hand them their own cell phone.
Last year, however, the academy released new recommendations for children’s media use. For instance, it recommended that children younger than 18 to 24 months avoid using digital media regularly, except when video-chatting. The academy also advised that for children 2 to 5, screen time should be limited to one hour per day.