President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama decided their daughter Malia was old enough to get a cell phone when she turned 12, yet another set of parents wrestling with the thorny question of the best age for kids to get mobile phones.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
The Obamas, like other parents across the nation, bundled the honor with several restrictions, like turning phone off at night, not using it during homework, disabling photo sharing capability, and submitting to random parental inspection. Restrictions like these highlight the balancing act parents walk to reap the clear convenience of cell phones while steering clear of potential pitfalls.
Mobile devices promise security and constant communication for parents and their children, but at the same time, their connection can introduce danger. Plus, there is a cost consideration for both the phones and their accompanying plans, and an almost dizzying array of parental controls that can limit or monitor access, all sparking discussion over the best age to introduce the devices to kids.
Feature Phone vs. Smartphone
Many parents give their tweens a feature phone, which doesn’t have an Internet connection, and wait for the teenage years to give them a full-fledged smartphone. Last fall, survey company SodaHead polled more than 1,000 parents and found 66 percent are in favor of waiting until children are teenagers to allow them smartphones.
Feature phones, used mostly for calling and texting, are the training wheels of mobile devices for parents. More than half of respondents to the SodaHead survey said simple cell phones for calling and texting are fine for 13-15 year olds, and a quarter said they would allow them for children under 12. Many parents feel allowing elementary and middle-school age children cell phones makes contacting family easier and lets children get help quickly in an emergency.
One drawback to providing mobile phones to younger children is concern the small screens on mobile devices may affect the still-developing eyesight of young children, leading to myopia, or nearsightedness, a trend documented in a study of children in Taiwan.
Other studies point to concerns about cancer and emotional issues in children with excessive mobile use, and the many that don’t conclusively provide a link caution about the possibility because of the developing physical and emotional nature of children.
Of course, the debate only intensifies when smartphones are introduced into the equation, and with them portable mobile access to the Internet, rife with not only information, but potential dangers like bullying and online predators.
Many kids understand a smartphone can be a direct line to Facebook, games and opportunities to interact with their friends online, and of course are in favor of getting a smartphone as soon as possible. Some parents think getting their children a smartphone when they are younger will make sure they become tech-savvy tweens and teens, while others just aren’t convinced. Some website restrictions exist to protect those younger than 13, which could allay some parents’ concerns.
One safeguard in place for younger children who have mobile access to the Internet is the Children’s Online Privacy Act. The Federal Trade Commission wants to strengthen the limits this law places on websites’ collection of children’s information and give parents more consent and control options for privacy and safety.
Interestingly, Facebook indicates it wants to relax some elements in this law, which primarily affects children under the age of 13, as part of its campaign to officially welcome younger children to the social network.
Still, the thought of a child accessing potentially adult content and conversations on a device they can take anywhere, rather than surfing from the safety of the family PC, makes many nervous parents looking for other options.
Parents have always had the cost of phones as a reason why their children cannot get a smartphone just yet. The kids may point to the smartphone’s sale prices in the weekly ad, but parents have been able to combat that with information about how much the monthly contract for that device adds to the overall price tag.
Previously, the lowest-priced smartphone plan couldn’t come close to the value from feature phones with plans that run anywhere from $5 to $20 a month, making the cost argument in favor of the more basic calling/texting device a slam dunk. But changes in carriers’ plans could soon make it easy for entire families to own mobile devices, including the kids.
Beginning June 28, Verizon is offering bold rate plans to new subscribers, shifting the way it manages customers’ data usage. Big Red’s new plans come with unlimited minutes and text messaging, and all devices on the plan will share one pool of data. Plans begin at $50 a month for 1-gigabyte of data and go up from there: $60 for 2-gigabytes, $70 for 4-gigabytes, $80 for 6-gigabytes, $90 for 8-gigabytes and $100 for 10-gigabytes.
After picking a data allotment, customers can have up to ten devices on their plans, $40 for every smartphone, $30 for a feature phone and $10 for a tablet. By narrowing the plan price between feature phones and smartphones to $10, these new programs could encourage greater smartphone adoption, especially for tweens and teens.
There may be some customer resistance to Verizon’s new plans, but the reality is that Verizon’s status as the number-one cell carrier in the U.S. makes it powerful enough to make the change without much consequence. The move by Verizon also opens the door for other carriers to follow suit, and AT&T has already confirmed it’s working on shared data plans for customers.
These plan changes may also give momentum to prepaid options and companies like startup Republic Wireless, which offer unlimited cell phone plans for $20 per month, providing an alternative to more expensive plans for budget-conscious families.
Think: What Is It For?
One of the best pieces of advice is consider when determining mobile device suitability is how the device will be used. If the need doesn’t go beyond basic communication — for instance, having your middle-schooler text you when they the activity bus is nearing the school — then consider a feature phone, but be warned: the carriers are pushing for smartphones, and the options may be limited.
If you are on the fence and want a young driver to have GPS and navigation tools that often come with a smartphone, for example — but are concerned about unsupervised Internet access — apps and other features help parents monitor and limit kids’ texts, calls, applications and website use.
However, kids, even those who swear the smartphone will only be used for safety, are good at finding new places to connect, preferably unsupervised by their families.
A growing number of “training wheel” social network and entertainment options, like KidzVuz, Walt Disney’s Club Penguin, Imbee, Kidsocial, Scuttlepad and Everloop, help create a safe place for children to learn how to communicate and use social media effectively. But kids are increasingly savvy and can find ways to take their interactions underground and limit their social footprint, so parents who follow this route need to stay on their toes.
Despite their concerns about online predators, bullying and lost hours in front of the screen, parents are learning how difficult it is to prevent their kids from interacting with social media, when new options and mutations sprout up apparently daily.
Face-to-Face Talking: An Oldie but a Goodie
It is also repeated so often it is a cliché, but parents should talk with their children about ground rules for mobile phones and tablets. Surprisingly, the kids may well be receptive to the talks, since a recent AT&T poll on families’ mobile behavior reports that 90 percent of kids aged 8 to 17 agree it is okay for parents to set smartphone rules.
The survey also found the average age a child is given their first phone is 12.1, and is 13.8, or a couple months’ shy of their 14th birthday, when receiving their first smartphone.
The reasons for needing a cellphone are established, so parents should discuss in concrete terms what the cellphone should be used for, what it should not be used for, setting curfews, and what the consequences are for violating those expectations.
Mobile devices are the preferred way for society to communicate on the go, and families looking to ensure their kids make that transition in the best way possible face many challenges. Raising awareness about the available options, understanding emotional and legal considerations, and taking a minute to think about your expectations for the phone play a key role in deciding what device, at what age, is best for your family.