For parents, the decision to give a child a smartphone is often rationalized on grounds of safety.
“I want to be able to contact my child at all times, or I want my child to be able to contact me,” an anxious parent might say.
But increasingly, children barely past the toddler stage are carrying smartphones and pediatricians, as well as some parent organizations, are expressing concern.
There’s been a recent proliferation of smartphone apps for children. Many are entertaining games but others are educational in nature, teaching children colors and numbers.
That’s often a rationale for introducing children to digital devices at an early age. The website NQ Family Guardian says it heard from a parent whose child advanced an entire grade level because of her playing with her smartphone.
But NQ Family Guardian is skeptical that those benefits outweigh potential drawbacks and others agree. At issue, they say, is a question of balance.
"Our children are being raised as digital natives and we want them to thrive in this technological age," said Rawdon Messenger, CEO of TeenSafe, a family support organization. "We want them in-the-know when it comes to technology so they can be successful, well-rounded adults when they leave our home. At the same time, we must take responsibility in guiding them through the pre-teen to 18 years and the struggles that come with being a teen today."
So TeenSafe and other organizations say there needs to be some rules. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has incorporated recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in its guidelines for limiting screen time.
AAP has taken the position that children should get no screen time until at least age 2 because the brain develops better through unstructured playtime and human interaction. And screen time is not limited to digital devices.
TV and video games are included
"Screen time is a term used for activities done in front of a screen, such as watching TV, working on a computer, or playing video games,” the NIH guidelines explain. “Screen time is sedentary activity, meaning you are being physically inactive while sitting down. Very little energy is used during screen time.”
TeenSafe recommends children age 2 to 5 get no more than an hour of screen time a day. That little amount hardly warrants handing a child that young their own smartphone.
Even a 10 year old shouldn’t have more than 3 hours of screen time per day, TeenSafe says.
Whatever the age, the group advocates a 20-20-20 rule. That means when kids are using media, for every 20 seconds they are staring at a screen they should spend another 20 seconds looking at something that is at least 20 feet away.
While that might be healthier, it sounds like it would be hard to enforce. In the end, most parents just want to know what is the appropriate age to hand their child a phone. For that TeenSafe says parents need to answer some questions.
- Have you set limits for digital device use and does your child understand and respect these limits?
- Does your child need a phone to stay in contact with you in case of an emergency?
- Can they be trusted not to use the phone during inappropriate times, like class?
- Have you laid the foundation for responsible smartphone behavior and talked with them about sexting?
And it doesn’t stop there. When a parent decides a child is ready for a smartphone, the parent must stay in touch with the child's online behavior, making sure the rules are being followed.