PhotoIt's remarkable when you stop and think that the smartphone – outside of the Blackberry – really didn't exist before 2007. Now, in less than a decade, almost everyone has one.

Earlier this year Nielson reported that 61% of Americans with a mobile device had a smartphone. The Blackberry now claims a small share while the vast majority use either an Android device or an iPhone.

What may be even more remarkable, however, is the number of children who have access to a smartphone or some other mobile device. A year ago the NPD Group surveyed families with children between the ages of two and 14. It found fewer than half of those families reported owning a smart device. This year, the number has soared to 79%.

A year ago only a third of children in the families with smart devices used them. This year the survey shows 51% use smartphones or tablets and 40% of the children have devices of their own, or are primary users.

Positives and negatives

This trend tends to be viewed both positively and negatively. Some educators see the plus side, noting the huge increase in the number of educational apps for smartphones and tablets. A recent accounting by found more than 3,400 education apps at the iTunes store. Many of them are designed for very young children, between the ages of two and five.

Many educators believe the potential benefits outweigh any negatives. Children tend to naturally take to technology and lessons imparted via technology media can be effective, they say.

Their mobility is another advantage. They are available in almost any location and, should a child become antsy, a parent can pull out a mobile device equipped with some educational app in the form of a game, to keep the child occupied.

But there are issues with handing your toddler a smartphone, other experts say. Dr. Carolyn Jaynes, a learning designer for Leapfrog Enterprises, suggests waiting until your child is at least in preschool before introducing them to the world of mobile gadgets.

Real-world experiences

Photo“Children under two years of age learn best from real-world experiences and interactions, and each minute spent in front of a screen-based device is a minute when your child is not exploring the world and using their senses, which is extremely important in their development process,” she said in an interview with PBS.

However, she concedes that preschoolers can benefit from educational content, presented through an electronic media.

As children get older the pressure to allow them to use a mobile device gets even greater. Smartphones – and even tablets – are fast becoming standard equipment for teens, and even some pre-teens.

That, of course, raises another set of issues. It's easier to monitor a child's use of the Internet when their computer is a desktop set up in the family room. It's a lot harder to monitor their online activities when they can access the Internet wherever they happen to be.

Help for parents has published a helpful guide for parents of older children who are just now confronting this issue. 

Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, which conducts research into media use, says a big factor in deciding to grant your child's request for a mobile device is the reason for the request. Often, she says, parents reject the request out of hand before hearing the reason for it.

Charlie Osborne, journalist and former teacher, is not a big fan of giving children smart devices. As a teacher, she says she constantly had to cope with the interruptions mobile devices caused in class.

Writing at ZDNet, Osborne rejects the notion that today's digital generation is growing up to be history's most advanced.

"As a former teacher, I don't see it,” she writes. “Children are not the most advanced – they're the most distracted. Furthermore, they are liable to become the most idiotic and lacking in social skills as their eyes are turned away from learning about their environment, instead commenting on their friend's latest duck-pout profile picture on Facebook.”

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