September 12, 2011
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
When is the right time to give a child a cell phone?
This is a question that more and more families are trying to answer. For our generation, it feels a bit like uncharted territory; after all, most of us didn't get cell phones until we were adults. But things have changed. Children are getting cell phones at younger and younger ages.
According to a 2010 report from Mediamark Research and Intelligence, in 2009 6.5% of 6- to 7-year-olds, 17.7% of 8- to 9-year-olds, and 36% of 10- to 11-year-olds have cell phones. The numbers go up as kids get older. A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010 found that 69% of 11- to 14-year-olds and 85% of 15- to 18-year-olds have them.
And just about every kid wants one. But what is the right age?
There is no simple answer. But here are some things to think about as you make the decision for your child.
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Is Your Child Ready?
My 10-year-old daughter wants a cell phone. Her three older siblings got cell phones in middle school, when they began to routinely go places without us. But Natasha wants one now. "Do you know how hard it is not to have one when all your friends do?" she cries. The real reason she wants one is that cell phones are cool.
But I know my daughter would use the phone for more than just calling home. She'd use it to talk to her friends and to text. (The same Kaiser Family Foundation report said that the average 7th to 12th grader texts for an hour and a half a day.)
Your child may be ready if he or she:
- Takes care of possessions
- Can be trusted not to lose things
- Understands and follows rules
- Shows good judgment for his or her age
These are all vague and subjective (and many adults wouldn't qualify as ready). But having a cell phone is a responsibility that carries some risks; it isn't a toy, and your child shouldn't think of it as one.
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The Downsides of Cell Phones
Despite what your children will tell you, not everything about owning a cell phone is great. Here are some downsides to consider.
- Cost While many plans will offer free phones, texting and calling plans can get expensive. One option is to get a pay-as-you-go phone. It puts a clear limit on costs.
- Distraction factor According to the Kaiser Family Foundation report, the average 7th to 12th grader spends an hour and a half a day texting. Some of that texting goes on at school, when they should be doing homework. Some occurs when they are crossing streets or, much worse, when they are driving. You can and should set limits on texting. For example, take the phone away at night. But those limits can be hard to enforce.
- Cyber-bullying and other dangers of texting That innocent text sent in fun can end up causing a lot of trouble and heartache.
- Sexting More and more teens are sending sexually suggestive pictures and texts. Because this material is considered pornography, sending it can be a felony.
- Possible cancer risk The World Health Organization recently said that cell phones may contribute to cancer. This is very far from saying that cell phones cause cancer. But if they do contribute to cancer, they will do it over years. This means that the earlier your child starts using a cell phone, the more years of possible exposure they will have. We don't want to raise our children's risk of anything, let alone cancer.
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The Upsides of Cell Phones
It can be helpful or even life saving for a child to have a cell phone when:
- A child has a chronic health condition that can be serious or life-threatening, such as diabetes or asthma, and may need help quickly
- A child is routinely alone for more than a brief period of time, such as a child who has a long commute on public transportation, or one who is unsupervised after school while a parent is at work
- Family members need to be in quick and close contact, such as during a parent's illness
If one of these applies to your child or family, then the decision to get a cell phone is easy. But if not (and they don't apply to most children and families), then it's going to come down to using your best judgment based on your child and your family situation.
If you decide not to get a phone for a child who wants one, be prepared for some upset! Some children want one just because their friends have one. Talk to your child about why you've made the decision you did; help them to understand why cell phones are not just fun accessories. For more information on kids and cell phones, visit the Center for Media and Child Health.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.