Family Matters

What’s the Right Age to Give Your Kid a Cell Phone?

The most popular age at which parents give their kids cell phones is 12. Are tweens ready to handle the responsibility of their own digital link to the world?

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My 9-year-old son doesn’t have a cell phone. I don’t think it’s occurred to him to ask, which puts me in the blissful company of other pre-tween parents whose kids have yet to hound them for what’s become a standard accoutrement of childhood.

Just because he doesn’t have his own phone doesn’t mean he’s not using one, of course. He and his younger sisters take turns clamoring for my iPhone or settling for the iPod Touch — now-indispensable devices with which earlier generations didn’t have to contend. (Walkman, anyone?) It’s that overwhelming availability and access to technology that’s the subject of TIME Magazine’s “Wireless Issue,” in which I wrote about when to give your kid a cell phone.

Partly, the question revolves around concerns about radiation. I always make my kids put a pillow between any wireless device and their laps; when they chat with their grandparents on a cell phone, I insist they turn on the speakerphone. I want grandchildren someday, and the effect of the non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phones remains unclear.

Turns out I’m not crazy. Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking it to reassess its radiation standards for children. Kids “are not little adults and are disproportionately impacted by all environmental exposures, including cell phone radiation,” wrote AAP President Dr. Robert Block, noting that the average radiofrequency energy deposition is two times higher in kids’ brains and 10 times higher in the bone marrow of their skulls, compared with adults.

(MORE: Pediatricians Say Cell Phone Radiation Standards Need Another Look)

Yikes. Nothing like talk of compromising baby brains to make you reach for the nearest hands-free device. It’s best to proceed with caution even as we continue to learn more about how cell phones affect us. There’s been some concern that the nighttime glow from digital screens devices may cause depression, for example. But as far as worries about eye strain go, pediatric ophthalmologist James Ruben, chair of the AAP’s section on ophthalmology, says it’s “probably much ado about nothing.” He’s seen no uptick in vision problems related to cell phone use in his practice in Roseville, Calif.

As for the impact of radiation, studies have been inconclusive, though the National Cancer Institute notes on its website that “in theory, children have the potential to be at greater risk than adults for developing brain cancer from cell phones.” Spanish researchers are currently evaluating that risk. The good news? One of the best things kids can do to avoid radiation zapping their developing brains is something they’re already embraced en masse: texting. Tapping out cell-phone missives keeps the phone away from their heads.

Alas, too much texting isn’t so great either, says Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-author of iBrain. “Our brains evolved to communicate face-to-face,” he says. “A lot of this is lost with texting.” Empathy and the ability to home in on social cues can also take a hit, says Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and author of Alone Together, about the drawbacks of social media use. “There’s a difference between an apology and typing, I’m sorry, and ‘send,’” says Turkle. “Texting takes the messiness out of human relationships. It’s not our job as parents to tidy up the world and deliver it in little soundbites.”

Yet even before they can spell — somewhat of a must for texting — kids are becoming savvy with cell phones. More than 1 in 10 kids between the ages of 6 to 10 already have their very own cell, according to data collected during the first six months of 2012 by YouthBeat. The most popular age to bequeath a phone to a kid? Twelve.

(MORE: Nearly 1 in 3 Teens Sext, Study Says. Is This Cause for Worry?)

Whereas older kids view their phones as their social lifelines, younger kids, like my 5-year-old daughter, use them to play games and watch video. Recently when I pried my iPhone from her hands, she huffed: “If you won’t give me your iPhone, I’m going to buy my own.”

According to Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who authored an AAP report last year about the potential pitfalls of digital technology, my daughter’s got plenty of time to start saving. Most young kids don’t need a phone — the exception may be children with allergies or medical conditions — but that changes once kids leave elementary school. “Middle school is the clear-cut time in my mind,” says O’Keeffe, who bequeathed phones to her girls then. “There’s a huge developmental leap between fourth and eighth grades.”

Much before then, kids may not be sufficiently responsible to keep track of a device or handle the complexities that can arise from being constantly connected to a cell phone — cyberbullying, sexting and overtures from strangers, to name a few. But don’t sit tight until that point; it’s up to parents to start early teaching kids how to play nicely in the digital world. “Well before you give them a cell, you have to start laying the groundwork,” says O’Keeffe. “It will go very smoothly if you help them acclimate.”

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