Kids and Smartphones: How Soon is Too Soon?

January 9, 2018 / by Tina Geru
Kids and Smartphones: How Soon is Too Soon?

If you’re reading this article, its because you are an awesome parent, grandparent, uncle or auntie! You’re probably born before the early 90’s and that meant countless hours playing outside, walking to your friend’s house, writing a journal, collecting gum stickers, playing Super-Mario, socializing face-to-face, listening to music on a Walkman, anticipating your favorite series on TV, finding out about stuff from books. Just like me, you are part of a generation that has witnessed one of the fastest progress shifts in world’s history, from Globalization to the Digital/Information era. We are virtually living the “Back to the Future” experience.

When I was 12, I won my very first cell phone in a Karaoke competition – an Alcatel One Touch Easy. I remember it felt so small in my hands – surreal that a device so compact can connect calls and send texts. And as we heard our parents say “Oh how things have changed!” we are the now filling their shoes and things have indeed changed monumentally.

Influence Central estimated that on average, a child gets his or her first smartphone at 10.3 years old and by age 12, a full 50 percent of children have social media accounts.

Understanding children’s development stages

According to Psychology Today, a child’s brain develops until the age of 25 in the areas of decision-making, sexuality, and emotional and impulse control. This means that no matter how smart, educated and responsible kids are, at some point they will act on impulse, and will most probably take a rushed decision.

Not an ethical approach, but many marketing campaigns count on a child’s pester power and that’s why reaching out to a child via media content translates into a monetary gain for so many brands today.

So how does a child’s brain react when exposed to technology from an early age? A pioneer in child development, Jean Piaget, explained that learning is a mental process that reorganizes concepts based on biology and experiences. Children’s brains grow and function in similar patterns, moving through four universal stages of development.
● Sensorimotor – 0 to 18-24 months
● Preoperational – 18-24 to age of 7
● Concrete operational – 7 to 12 years old
● Formal operational – adolescence through adulthood

Many early learning curriculums nowadays are based on the above principles. Children need to experience the world around them to make the right mental connections. Children “construct an understanding of the world around them”.

One of the most important aspects of a child’s development is the face-to-face interaction. Psychologists observed that recently technology has been interfering with the real one-on-one time we give our kids. The screen keeps our little ones away from physically exploring the world.

Dr. Jenny Radesky of Boston Medical Center told Psych Central, “They (children) learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them. They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. And if that’s not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones.”

Technology rewires the developing brain

Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior says “(Young people’s) exposure is rewiring their brain’s neural circuitry, heightening skills like multi-tasking, complex reasoning and decision-making” however he also explains that there is also a downside “All that tech time diminishes “people” skills, including important emotional aptitudes like empathy.”

Potential physical damage

No need to panic (yet), but there are a few ongoing studies about the radiation from smartphones. An extensive study called Cosmos, is run by the Imperial College London. Although the theory hasn’t been proven yet, as more time is required to study the long-term effects, there are some concerns that the radio frequencies might harm a developing brain.

Psych Central mentions in one of its articles, “Research has shown that both the temporal and frontal (lobes) are actively developing during adolescence and are instrumental in aspects of advanced cognitive functioning”.

How parents’ use of technology affects kids

Before we even consider getting our kids a smartphone, we must analyze our own patterns. Specialists fear that children have to compete with the smartphone for our undivided attention. Our eyes on the screen while playing with our kids will lead them to the conclusion that screen time is just as good as face-to-face interaction.

Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair mentioned that in her private practice, kids expressed that their parents were missing in action while staring at their screens.

As this is not enough reason to cut down on our phone time, according to the Official Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics, the smartphone use may be to blame for a 10 percent uptick in unintentional childhood injuries.

So how soon is too soon?

The Microsoft mogul, Bill Gates, father of Jennifer, 20, Rory, 17, and Phoebe, 14, allowed his kids smartphones from the age of 14, despite their complaints. He also established the house rules of no cell phones during mealtime and limited screen time.

On the other hand, in an interview with Digital Trends, Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, said that there is no specific age for all children to own a cell phone. It depends on their level of maturity and why the phone is used. It’s a parent’s job to teach critical thinking and responsible behavior. She also mentioned that taking a child’s phone away is also not a solution, as the phone is “the portal to their social life”.

Communication and monitoring – doctor’s orders

Finding the balance between being a friend and a parent is one of the biggest challenges we face. How can we teach our kids the value of trust when we deprive them of their privacy?

Psychologists advise us to have a chat with our children and illustrate to them the type of potential dangers that are out there in the online world. They must understand that if not prudent, even grown-ups can be affected and that’s why as parents it’s our duty to monitor their online behavior

When we do monitor their devices, we must keep in mind the expert recommendations for media content based on age (i.e. nonviolent content before the age of 8).

It’s important to encourage our kids not to engage in online bullying, even if they are provoked. They should not write or post things they would mind us to see.

If our kids are subject to cyber-bullying or inappropriate content, they might be afraid to tell us about it, thinking that we will take their device away. We must assure them that this will not be the case and encourage them to trust us.

However, if they break any of the set rules, we must take their gadgets away for a while and ask them to reflect on the reason we’re disappointed with their behavior.

Lastly, our kiddos should know that our monitoring will gradually reduce in time, once they approach a more mature age, but also when they’ve learned how to be independent online.

How often is too often?

We’ve all felt guilty (or at least I have) about allowing our kids to use their phone a bit longer than we initially agreed. Sometimes we value that extra minute of quiet, to hear our own thoughts and get things done without the constant “mom, mom, mommy” pestering.

Psychology Today suggested we ask ourselves these questions in order to decide how long is too long:
● Could phone use be interfering with developing face-to-face social skills and physical play and activity?
● Is it be interfering with getting chores, homework, or other work done?
● Does my child have trouble talking with and listening to me because of a phone?
● Do I find my child often looking at his phone when he is supposed to be doing something else?
● Is the phone a means for my child continuing to access drugs or other dangers?
● Does my child seem anxious or depressed after using it, or aggressive or angry when not able to use it? The latter are possible signs of addiction.

When our little ones use our smartphones:

What kind of exposure is right and at what age? This is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:
● Under 18 months: avoid screens except for video-chatting
● 18-24 months: can be exposed to high-quality programs, such as PBS, with parents to guide learning
● 2-5 years: limit to 1 hour of high-quality media with parents
● 6 and older: maintain consistent limitations to media use and ensure that it does not interfere with sleep or physical activities

How we can make things work for us and our kids

Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair told the American Psychology Association that “Kids thrive in the context of really good relationships with their parents, and never before has the technology challenged that relationship and that direct in-vivo connection as much as it does today”.

She recommended that parents dedicate half an hour to addressing burning issues online before the little ones wake up. She also believes that there should be no smart-phones allowed during mealtime, drive time and bedtime. These should be moments of face-to-face interaction or contemplation.

Psychologists advise us to present the smart-phone as a privilege that comes as a result of learning how to be responsible and not use the technology in self-detriment or the detriment of others. It’s important that we discuss the pros and cons of owning a smart device.

On that note, it’s recommended to wait as long as possible before allowing our kiddos a smart-phone.

Are there substitutes to owning a smartphone?

Staying in touch with your little one doesn’t require a smart-phone. There are a few alternatives. Some parents buy their kids basic mobile devices that are used for calling and texting.

Also designed for kids are wearable location tracking gadgets. Some devices children can wear on their wrists and others can be attached to their rucksacks. Here is a list you can check out:
● AngelSense –
● hereO GPS Watch –
● AmbyGear Smartwatch –
● Amber Alert GPS Locator –
● dokiWatch –

If used right technology can be beneficial

Specialists reckon that if we set a few family rules, technology can become a beneficial part of our lives. We must realize that a lot has evolved since we were kids and that technology plays a big role in our day-to-day life, and if taken away from our children, it can affect their social inclusion and sense of belonging. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:
● A child is more capable of: handling rapid cyber searches, making quick decisions, developing visual acuity, and multitasking.
● Games help develop peripheral vision.
● Visual motor tasks like tracking objects or visually searching for items is improved.
● Internet users tend to use decision-making and problem-solving brain regions more often.
● Smartphones and tablets can foster learning concepts, communication, and camaraderie.
● There is a lot to digest and consider. Bottom line is that before awarding our kids with smart-phones we must make sure they’ve learned the right values and meanwhile, we must lead by example when using our own gadgets.

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