The Slide & Talk Smart Phone manufactured by VTech is an electronic toy intended for ages 2 through 5. Designed to resemble an actual cell phone, it allows kids to practice sending text messages, customize ringtones, and receive phone calls from virtual friends. "Play eight fun-filled activities in phone mode or message mode that introduces your child to letters, numbers, phone routines, typing messages, and more," the ad copy reads.
For the telecommunications industry, this type of early indoctrination is proving invaluable. While smartphones have become ubiquitous among adults, they can also be found in a rising number of adolescent pockets. According to a 2013 PEW Research Center study, 78 percent of American children between 12 and 17 had phones; in a 2012 National Consumers League survey, 60 percent of polled adults said they offered a phone to their 10- to 11-year-old; 10 is now the average age for acquiring their first device.
For parents, smartphones are useful: They're a way to keep track of their child’s location, and they satisfy the peer pressure that often accompanies a request for a mobile device. But increasingly, experts are cautioning that adults who equip kids with easy access to social media and instant communication may be creating more problems than they solve.
Jesse Weinberger, an internet safety expert who lectures across the country on the perils of digital socialization, believes that parents are missing some key issues when deliberating over phone usage.
"My general rule is not to give a phone to someone younger than a freshman in high school, 13 or 14," Weinberger says. "There’s a lack of critical thinking prior to that. They’re missing impulse control and they believe whatever they see."
In smartphone ownership, that can be highly problematic. In her lecture circuit, Weinberger polled over 70,000 children on issues relating to phone usage and inappropriate content. "The onset of porn consumption is 8," she says. "'Sexting' is beginning in the fourth and fifth grades."
While these issues are present on the internet regardless of how it’s accessed, Weinberger believes the easy reach of a smartphone creates a far different atmosphere. "The two things are not synonymous and not equal. And the reason is the immediacy and permanence of a smartphone in a kid’s hand at all times."
Weinberger points out that social media has become so popular that authority figures make a common oversight. Applications like Instagram and Facebook are technically not meant to be accessible to those under 13 years old, yet children bypass simple birthday checks without a second thought. The apps are then used to help validate their social standing by measuring followers and likes.
"Kids lie," Weinberger says. "Eighty percent of kids will raise their hand when I ask if they have Instagram. They have three or four accounts, three to four email addresses. Parents have no idea what’s going on."
For some adults, that uncertainty leads them to believe that monitoring apps or checking their child’s phone for inappropriate content can resolve some of those issues. But Weinberger cautions that the idea of "monitoring" a smart phone is more involved than it appears. "That can become a part-time job," she says. "There’s a lot that goes into monitoring and consequences and supervising." Making that job harder is the emergence of "vault" apps like Smart Hide Calculator, which looks and functions like a calculator but can actually hide photos or texts that users don’t wish for others to see.
Smartphones aren’t limited in their danger by potentially premature social interactions. Physiologically, Weinberger notes that back-lit devices used before bed can often disrupt circadian sleep rhythms; checking email can lead to an event informally dubbed "email apnea," where we subconsciously hold our breath and refresh pages to see if any fresh communication has come in. In developing bodies, that could prove disruptive. "There are reasons known and not yet known" why smartphones can prove hazardous, Weinberger notes.
In the end, parents will have to make their own determination whether their child is capable of handling a smartphone responsibly, or if they might be better served to equip them with a so-called "dumb" phone with limited internet and app capabilities. (Such flip-style phones are getting harder to find, although Nokia has plans to re-introduce a basic cell device from 2000.) Regardless, Weinberger maintains that setting limits on its usage and educating children on possible predation from peers or lurking adults is key.
When it comes to safety, "the question isn’t really when a child is ready for a phone," Weinberger says. "The question is, when is the parent ready?"