Children & smart phones; an unstoppable trend leaves parents with questions and fears

How young is too young for a smartphone? 8, 9, 10 years old? Or do they have to be a teenager? As many parents struggle with this decision, data suggests the age at which children are getting their own cell phone is getting younger by the year.

Study shows nearly one quarter of Canadian kids in Grade 4 have their own phone. Is that too young?

This past summer, when Annemarie Tempelman-Kluit's 12 year old daughter Madeleine started taking the bus home on her own, the Vancouver digital strategist decided it was time to buy her a cell phone.  It was not an easy decision. 

"We all learned how to ride a bike from our parents.  We kind of have a model for teaching someone how to ride a bike." she says.

"We never got taught how to use a cell phone when we were 12, or what the skills you need are, so we don't have a road map for ourselves."

Many parents are struggling with the same decision.  We're inundated with stories about the dangers of too much screen time or sexting or cyber bullying, not to mention unexpected bills for outlandish roaming fees and data overages. 

At the same time, today's younger children are digital natives, having never known a world where smartphones and tablets weren't common household items, a world where everyone is always connected and where information about every single possible subject is always instantly at hand. 

Younger and younger

While there are, as Tempelman-Kluit realised, few road maps for parents considering when to buy their child a cell phone, there are some hints that parents are making that decision earlier and earlier.

A recent report by the non-profit group MediaSmarts says nearly 1 quarter of Canadian children in Grade 4 - so some as young as 8 years old - own their own cell phone. 

That number jumps to more than 50 per cent for students in Grade 7.

"We're seeing higher and higher adoption of mobile devices by younger and younger kids." says Matthew Johnson, Director of Education at MediaSmarts.

"That's really the biggest change since we last did the survey in 2005: the tremendous rise in the number of kids using mobile devices to access the internet."

Young and alone on social networks

Interestingly (or frighteningly for some parents) of those Grade 4s with phones, the report says about one fifth are on social networks, even though Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat (and others) all have policies that require users to be at least 13 years old.

The report didn't look at whether the kids' phones had parental controls enabled but it did find a correlation between rules in the home and how the phones were used. 

"If there was a rule in the home - whether it was about respecting people online, whether it was about asking permission before accessing inappropriate sites, whether it was about time you spent online - all of these had an association with whether or not kids engaged in these behaviours." says Johnson.

In other words, provided parents had clearly defined rules for using the internet at home, kids with phones respected those rules even when they were not at home and out of sight of their parents. 

That's not to say there aren't other concerns for younger children and phones. 

The risks

"There's starting to be some research of some of the mental health stresses of being online all the time." says Johnson.

There's the fear of missing out on something or that other kids are talking about them when they're offline, he says. 

Screen time within a few hours of going to bed can also affect the quality of sleep. 

"We actually found, of the young people in our study with cell phones, more than one third were sleeping with the cell phones, specifically so they could check in the night and didn't go too long without checking up on what their friends were doing."  he says.

Conversely, he says,

"We know that the accessibility of the internet can make it possible for kids to get information that they might have felt reluctant getting earlier."

The upsides

When kids have mental or physical health issues for instance, when they need good information on sexual health, all of that is available online and all of it is much easier to access on a phone, when they don't have to worry about who's watching or need to ask permission. 

Whatever reason children are using mobile devices, it's clear they're using them at increasingly younger ages. 

Which is why MediaSmart's digital literacy materials now start in Kindergarten. 

"Which doesn't mean that we're advocating or suggesting that kids in kindergarten should be using digital devices." Johnson says.

"But we have to recognize in many cases that they are."

Annemarie Tempelman-Kluit says her daughter Madeleine proved herself trustworthy when she got a WiFi enabled iPod touch at the age of 9. 

So when she gave her daughter her old iPhone 4s this past summer, she didn't enable any of the parental controls. 

"I have all her passwords and I can check anytime to see what's happening. So I don't think she's sly enough to start deleting stuff when I'm not checking.  So I feel sort of a trust base." she says.

When Madeleine takes the bus home from school with her younger sister, who's 9, and another friend, Tempelman-Kluit likes the idea that she can get in touch.

She had a situation last week where the ending time of an activity changed unexpectedly.  She was able to contact her mother and let her know. 

How one kid sees it

Other than texting her mother, Madeleine says she mostly uses her phone to watch youtube.

"Music videos and I like these other youtube channels that I watch.  Like, my friends all watch youtube channels.  Some of them have youtube channels, so I watch them on youtube sometimes." she says.

Madeleine also has her own thoughts on how old kids should be when they get their own device.

"I don't think younger than 8." Madeleine says.

"Because yesterday, I was at the mall and I saw some little kids in a stroller and they both had their own ipad minis.  And they were just playing with them and I'm like, that's way to young to have an ipad or a device of your own."


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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