Cell phones and smartphones are constant companions for most adults and a constant fascination for many kids.
It isn’t hard for many children to see how cool it is to have the power to do so many things, right in their pocket. If your child is asking for a cell phone (and asking…and asking), you may be questioning, “Is it safe for kids to have cell phones?”
Here are some cautions to consider before adding your child to your family plan.
Fear that cell phones may cause cancer rises up every few years. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) website explains that cell phones emit nonionizing radiation, a low-energy form of radiation that hasn’t been definitively shown to increase cancer risk.
The NCI gives an overview of several other organizations’ findings that research, so far, doesn’t show any conclusive link between cell phone use and cancers, even for kids.
Protect Your Child’s Health
If you want your child to have a phone but want to lessen any possible risk, experts recommend limiting your child’s cell phone use and requiring your child to use hands-free devices instead of putting the phone directly to their ear.
Also, because cell phones emit heat, adults and children both should keep cell phones in a backpack, purse, or other holder, and not in a pocket.
If your child is a driver, you’re probably already pretty nervous about their time behind the wheel.
According to AAA, a nonprofit organization for drivers, teen drivers have the highest rate of crashes in the United States. A 2015 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that distractions, from passengers and cell phones, were the top causes of teen accidents.
Protect Your Child on the Road
AAA’s teen driving website has interactive information and resources to help parents promote safer teen driving, including a safety pledge for teens to sign.
The Nemours Foundation, a nonprofit children’s health organization, has useful tips for teens who find themselves as passengers in a car with a driver who is using a phone.
There are a number of apps for iOS and Android that you can put on your child’s phone that limit their ability to use the phone while in a vehicle. Consumer Reports, the nonprofit consumer group, tested Verizon’s Safely Go, Sprint’s Drive First, and AT&T’s Drive Mode apps, and said all worked well.
Cell phones can be a distraction that is hard for anyone to resist, including adults. Researchers at Florida State University found that even silent, vibrating notifications from your phone can interrupt your ability to focus on the task at hand.
Teachers have complained about cell phones for years and, as a result, some schools don’t allow cell phones in the classroom and others allow them only on a limited basis. In New York City, students sometimes have to pay to check their phone while they are at school.
Protect Your Child’s Mind
Check out your school system’s website, or call the principal of your child’s school, before you send the cell in your child’s backpack. Talk to your child about why paying attention in class is important and when they can use their phones without being disrespectful. You might even consider not allowing them to have their phone at school, to avoid the temptations it offers.
At home, consider limiting cell phone use to certain hours of the day, only after homework is done, or only in certain rooms of the house. As a family, you may want to create an agreement that everyone will put down their phones for some amount of time each day and interact with each other, face-to-face.
This book has guidance for how to make phone-free time seem like a good idea, even to the most plugged-in family members: “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Children and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” by Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair.
Dr. Steiner-Adair interviewed more than a thousand children and found that they are just as frustrated by their parents’ obsessive use of technology as parents are with their kids. She offers motivation for putting down the devices and tips for how to make it a habit.
Concerns About Personal Safety
Cell phones offer access to the Internet and social media and both offer your child access to people around the world. Some kids find creative outlets, other kids with similar interests, and support when they are feeling lonely.
Unfortunately, some kids learn there are people out there who will take advantage of them. Predators come in many different packages, from peers who bully each other into sharing sexually explicit photos, to adults who prey on naïve children, to radical groups looking for new recruits.
Protect Your Child’s Body and Reputation
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that, first and foremost, you learn how to use social media yourself. You will also have to take a deep breath and talk to your child openly about the risks of the Internet and social media.
Explain to your child that some people use the Internet for make-believe, pretending to be friendly or even pretending to be teens. Make sure your child knows they should only give specific information out online if they know the person they are speaking to in the offline world as well. And tell them to never, ever send anyone personal photos that they wouldn’t want you to see.
Be clear about the long-term nature of information on the Internet and remind them that a mean comment they make about a friend on Facebook will still be there in 10 years. Additionally, make sure you and your kids understand that “information” isn’t just what we purposely write on someone’s Instagram photo. We also leave behind all sorts of digital breadcrumbs, like our location or credit card numbers, so it’s best to make caution your guide.
Research has not shown any direct link between cell phones and cancer risks. However, researchers have found a link between cell phones, distracted driving, and accidents caused by teen drivers.
The impact of cell phones on anyone’s ability to concentrate is something to consider before allowing your child to take a phone to school. As always with the Internet and social media, safety online is just as important as safety offline. Be sure to talk to your children honestly about how to own a phone safely, assess whether they are mature enough to understand the risks, and stay on top of what they are doing.