Is it time for your kid to get a smartphone?

Following France's ban of cell phones in school, readers and local professionals weigh in

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My 9-year-old nephew occasionally asks for his own smartphone—knowing it isn’t going to happen, but throwing the idea out there, just in case. The answer has always been a solid no, but when he went off to the park with couple of older friends my sister didn’t know, she (almost) wished he had one. What if they were mean to him? What if he needed to get picked up in a hurry? She ended up driving to the park to check on him from the car just to find herself caught spying, and the new friends helping Patrick with his baseball swing. She was more embarrassed than he was.

He isn’t even in middle school yet, but Patrick’s request for his own smartphone wasn’t so outlandish. Payphones have become obsolete. The world is becoming more technology-dependent every day. According to a 2016 study by research firm Influence Central, the average age for getting a first smartphone is a mere 10.3 years old. But just because that’s what everyone is doing, does that mean it’s right?

Bill Gates didn’t let his kids have their own phones until they were 14. This newspaper surveyed its readers in July, and they seemed to agree with the tech pioneer: 51% think kids should get their first smartphones between ages 13 and 16. The second largest opinion among readers fell in line with the current average, with 23% believing kids should get their first phones between ages 9 and 12.

Michael Rheaume, who is entering his 14th year as principal at S.S. Seward Institute, a public school for grades 6-12 in Florida, NY, has watched the trend slide down in age over the years:

“We do orientation programs where all of the 6th graders and their parents are here. I would say, 3 or 4 years ago we would ask: ‘how many 6th graders have a phone?’ and maybe 3 or 4 raised their hands. As recently as last year, when we asked the same question, just about everybody raised their hand.”

The ConsAs is the case at most schools, S.S. Seward’s policy is that phones need to be turned off and put away during the day. Surprisingly, breaking that rule during class isn’t Rheaume’s number one issue with cell phones.

“The biggest damage we see from cell phones is mostly linked to social media and a lack of sleep,” explains Rheaume. “We have a lot of students that come into school exhausted because they are on cellphones until 3 o’clock in the morning, and it’s tough to learn if you’re exhausted.”

Amy Wohl, a Licensed Master Social Worker in Goshen, NY specializes in adolescents and agrees that social media and smartphone use can be detrimental, particularly to a child’s communication skills and sense of self-esteem.

“It’s not teaching them to be social,” says Wohl. “I have a girls group that comes to my office and they have a difficult time talking to girls that they don’t know from other schools. They’re so awkward socially because they’re so busy texting: that’s their main form of communication…I think it really hinders maturity level in communication.”

But even more so, she finds social media apps such as Instagram to be the biggest culprit, which has adolescents competing for photo likes and followers. When an adolescent posts something and doesn’t get enough attention: “It shakes their self-esteem,” says Wohl.

The SolutionThere is no magic number. Instead, both Wohl and Rheaume suggest implementing guidelines to monitor cell phone use.

“It’s all about knowing your child’s maturity,” says Wohl, who believes apps such as Facebook and Instagram are generally inappropriate for young adolescents. Both apps require users to be at least 13 years old in order to create a profile, but it’s easy to set up an account with a birth year other than one’s own.

“Parents have to remember: they pay the bill. It’s their phone,” adds Rheaume. “What we recommend parents do now is they set a time that the cell phone goes to them at night, and it is charged in their bedroom so they know the child is not on it and is asleep.”

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