Smartphones in Tiny Hands

Protecting your child from cell phone dangers.

If the average teen were asked to choose between a cell phone and the family dog, it would be a bad day for Fido. No single device is as coveted, absorbing and perhaps integral to a youngster’s socialization.

The 2012 Pew Internet and American Life survey found that 57 percent of kids ages 12 and 13 have their own cell phone. And remarkably, three-quarters of all kids with a cell phone report that they sleep with their phone.

This fascination with cell phones is rapidly filtering down to younger kids. Parents increasingly grapple with requests from elementary school-age children for personal phones. Spend a few minutes in a restaurant. It rapidly becomes apparent that smartphone operating systems pose no real challenge to kids as young as 2 or 3.

Ultimately, the issue is not at what age a child is ready to use a technological device; it’s how ready parents are to educate children about the risks of those devices and to supervise usage.

Given the capabilities of the average smartphone, kids can get themselves in a wide range of serious legal trouble, including cyberbullying and cyberharassment, identity theft, substance abuse and sexting— the taking and distributing of nude photographs. Due to some high-profile teen deaths, a number of states have adopted strict new laws regarding cyberbullying. Both state and federal prosecutors take potential child pornography cases extremely seriously.

Unfortunately, as the Pew statistics illustrate, powerful phones with global communication capabilities are now increasingly in the hands of children who may lack the proper judgment to know what is and is not appropriate distribution of information. Thanks to media, older siblings and the growing availability of hand-me-down devices, cell phone requests are coming from younger tykes.

The questions parents should ask themselves before giving their child a mobile device are the same regardless of the age of the child. First, do caretakers understand the capabilities of the device and the ways it can be used to interact with others? Second, can the functions of the device be altered by young users without the parents’ knowledge? Third, can parents restrict such changes?

Parents should be prepared to have frank conversations with their child about the potential legal consequences of misbehavior. For instance, if the phone has a camera, a discussion should be had about the use of inappropriate pictures. If parents are willing to have that conversation, or don’t think that their child is mature enough to understand the potential risk of a smartphone camera, then it is probably not a good idea to give a phone to the child.

Be ready to put in the time to supervise your child’s Internet activity. Simply explaining possible legal risks is generally not enough to protect children. Also take time to check what apps are being installed on mobile phones.

Children are naturally resistant to supervision, particularly because they are territorial about their possessions. However, kids need to be reminded that a watching eye isn’t surveillance, it’s parenting. The consequences of electronic misbehavior can be severe.

One final point to keep in mind is that not all the risks associated with cell phones are legal ones. Pediatricians are reporting a disturbing rise in the levels of sleep deprivation among teens and kids. Some have even recorded cases of sleep texting.

Given the proliferation of smartphones and urgent pleas for such devices by kids, there’s little question that a cell phone is in your children’s future. The challenge is to ensure that it’s a safe and positive addition to each child’s life.