Left to their own devices: When parents let their kids have phones, are they just dialing for danger?

For most parents, getting 'tweens or teens cellphones is more a question of "when" than "if."

A stroll through an elementary school proves it's not uncommon for even first- and second-graders to have phones, though most families wait until kids are at least a little older.

According to Nielsen's Fourth-Quarter 2016 Mobile Kids Report, 45% of 4,656 parents of children between ages 6 and 12 surveyed provided cellphones -- with service plans -- to their children between the ages of 10 and 12 years old.

A 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 85% of teens from 14 to 17 had phones. That survey estimated that 69% of those between 11 and 14 and 31% of children ages 8 to 10 also had their own cellphones.

Some parents opt to buy phones for their children because they ride buses or go to after-school programs and extracurricular activities and they want to be able to contact them, or even track their location, once they leave school or home. But many of those parents also worry about the dangers for children from the very device that's supposed to keep them safer.

Ashley Burks says her 14-year-old son, Shaun, had a phone for a while when he was younger, but she and her husband, Josh, decided it wasn't appropriate and took it back.

"We tried the cellphone for about a year," she says. "He saved his money and we found a used iPhone 5. We never set it up on a plan. He didn't have texting or calling capabilities. He used Google Hangouts to text and could download apps and music on our Wi-Fi."

They noticed that the phone created distance between Shaun and the rest of the family, though.

The lure of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Google Hangouts, Musical.ly and more, along with new apps that pop up each day, can pull at smarthphone users around the clock, after all. There are endless streams of posts to scroll through, "likes" to tally, videos to watch, songs and games to download and messages to tap out and receive.

The "Wait Until 8th" movement, started by a group of Austin, Texas, parents who were worried about how smartphones were changing their children's lives, asks parents to pledge to wait until their children are at least in eighth grade before giving them phones. They cite research that shows phones interfere with sleep and with personal relationships, they are more addictive than gambling and they expose children to sexual content and cyberbullying.

A National Institutes of Health study completed in 2018, for example, used MRIs to show that children who used smartphones or tablets or played video games for seven hours a day had prematurely thinning brain cortices, which are responsible for cognitive functions including perception, language and memory. That study also showed that children scored lower on thinking and language assessments after spending just two hours using those devices.

A 2017 study from the University of Texas at Austin's

McCombs School of Business evaluated a group of 800 people, randomly instructing each one to place his phone in a pocket or purse, on the desk face down or in another room, and then asking them to take a series of tests on a computer. Participants whose phones were in another room during their assessments significantly outperformed those with their phones nearby, even though all phones in the study were on silent.

All this simply proves is parents should be cautious.

"As far as an age range when a child getting a phone is appropriate versus not, the Arkansas Academy of Pediatrics doesn't have any strict, set guidelines, but research has shown that generally above the age of 13, I think, the majority of teens do have a cellphone," says Tiffany Howell, psychologist at Arkansas Children's Hospital. "The age at which kids are getting cellphones, as you probably know, is dramatically different from what it was 10 years ago.

Howell suggests that for 10- to 13-year-olds, a cellphone rather than a smartphone is the way to go.

"That way if they need to get in contact with, you know, a parent or caregiver in an emergency, it still has that, that nice benefit that kind of protects them from some of the other treacherous things out there on these smartphones," she says.

But, she says, withholding devices from children sometimes puts them at a disadvantage socially.

"Families have to sit down and really take inventory with their teenager or their preteen and see if they're going to be ostracized, not intentionally, but literally left out of the group because they don't have a cellphone and can't do like the group texts and things," she says. "If everybody in their circle of friends has one and that is their primary mode of communication, to not allow your child to have one in that situation can be problematic for the kid and can lead to some emotional issues."

Howell says being able to keep in touch with friends isn't the only benefit associated with having a phone.

"Another unexpected benefit of increased cellphone usage is the teen pregnancy rate's gone down. It's not correlational and this study doesn't explain why they think this is the case," she says. "But it is interesting that as the cellphone usage and media has gone up that the teen pregnancy rate's gone down."

Kate Jay, spokesman for Verizon, says that company just rolled out its "Just Kids" smartphone plan, designed to help families enjoy the benefits of smartphones with fewer risks and irritations.

"It's really designed to give parents peace of mind," she says.

With that plan, parents can track their children's locations, set data limits -- including scheduling screen time -- and screen content. The plan allows up to 20 trusted contacts to be uploaded to the phone.

Parents can still buy phones that only have texting and calling capabilities -- i.e. not smartphones -- though those are, of course, less popular with children, Jay says. And there are also devices such as the Verizon Gizmo Watch that are geared specifically toward younger users. The Gizmo has call and text capability, allows up to 10 trusted contacts and also functions as an activity tracker.

Verizon, Jay says, is a founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, which offers tips and tools for families about smartphones and other online devices.

"It's about being a really good partner for parents," she says. "That's why we've worked to provide those different tools and resources and devices to help parents at every step along that journey."

Amy Cooper, principal of Forest Heights STEM Academy in Little Rock, tries to stay ahead of students in kindergarten through eighth grade at her school as well as her own daughter, 11-year-old Kristyn. She suggests that parents be mindful of the apps their children are using on their phones and take up phones at night.

"Sometimes kids communicate very late at night," she says. "They also need to know the different types of apps they can use to communicate. Some parents think, 'Oh, my child doesn't have a cellphone. They can't text.' Well, no, there's certain types of apps that kids can use to text message through on their tablets or they can just go to the site on the computer. As long as they have Wi-Fi, they can communicate with someone else."

She also recommends that children make sure the AirDrop option on iPhones either be turned off or limited to "contacts only," so that they can't receive photos from strangers in their vicinity.

As for Burks, she says her family will take another shot at giving their teenager a phone.

"Most likely, he will get a phone in the fall," Burks says, adding that she plans to establish strict guidelines about how and when he can use it.

That's a stance backed up by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

"As parents are providing phones for children at younger and younger ages, it's important for parents to know every single thing their child is doing on that phone. The way I express it to parents is that you would not let your child get into a car with someone you don't know, you would not let them go spend the night with someone you don't know. So why on earth are you letting them talk to people that you don't know, all hours of the day and night? They invite those people through this technology, through video chat and other things, into your home and into your bedrooms," Rutledge says.

She says parents should also use parental controls on their children's phones, but that they should not stop there.

"It's important for parents to want to know who their children are talking to, and what apps they're using. And that means parents must literally take the phone and go through every single app, understand how to use it and to do random checks on their child's phone," Rutledge says. "It's great to have parental controls with the middle school age and younger teens. But it's important for parents just to snatch that phone out of the child's hands occasionally and start opening up messages, opening up apps, to see who they're talking to, what information that child is sharing."

Style on 06/04/2019