Smartphones in children’s hands: what do parents have to consider?


Image: © deagreez / Adobe Stock

Nowadays, owning a smartphone is almost a prerequisite for participating in society. Communication with the social environment is also increasingly taking place digitally. Anyone who is not technically up-to-date could get the feeling of being left behind. The same now also applies to children of a certain age. The topic remains delicate – but the reality of our children’s lives looks invitingly in the face of millions of parents.

Up to the age of 12, you should be extremely careful with your children when it comes to smartphones. Is such a high-tech device really necessary to maintain communication with your child outside the home, or is a simple cell phone or children’s smartphone that only offers limited functions temporarily sufficient.

Sometimes it is the case, however, that there are simply good reasons to let children out of the house at a younger age with a real smartphone. The selection of child-safe apps suitable for everyday use (be it in the Playstore or in the competition with the Apple) is now large enough, and often much more extensive in terms of functions than the rather limited software of designated children’s smartphones. So even if the devices are much more expensive to buy, parents end up having a greater subjective feeling of security.

This article is intended to give parents a neutral overview of the things to watch out for when giving children a smartphone to use.

The cell phone as a valuable item in children’s hands

In addition to the question of whether a child is mentally mature enough to master the dangers of using a smartphone, there is also the fact that real valuables are used with these devices. On the one hand, it is important to ask your child to show a certain respect for the smartphone as a thing. But one should also address the fact that smartphones (or tablets) arouse desires among thieves.

For adults it is absolutely natural to use high-quality and expensive equipment in everyday life. Even children will automatically have a claim on themselves. Because they don’t want to destroy great new things either. But – the younger you are, the more agile your everyday life is. If something of good quality falls out of the hand of a child, it is certainly never on purpose. But there can always be spontaneous, thoughtless situations in which a child briefly does not think about the smartphone in their hand. And already there is damage to unprotected devices.

The same applies to the iPad, for example. Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, it is no longer particularly rare for children to use an iPad (or similarly high-quality tablets) for homeschooling. And over long distances (like in lockdown) almost every day. Even small inattentions, such as a falling glass with liquid, or the device falling off the desk, can become very expensive with the iPad or smartphone if they cause damage.

That’s why you should always get a custom-fit protective cover and a good screen protector. Of course, there are also inexpensive universal cases for smartphones and tablets. However, you should refrain from doing so if the devices get into the hands of children. Because if the worst comes to the worst, they don’t cushion falls as well because they only roughly fit. In an emergency, liquids could also penetrate through small cracks or pre-drilled holes for alternative smartphone or tablet models. In this way, however – for example with the iPad 4 with the matching iPad Air 4 (2020) sleeves – damage caused by minor or major carelessness can be consistently prevented. Any other scenario would annoy one mightily.

From what age should children be allowed to have a cell phone?

The question of what age children should start using a smartphone is as old as the mobile phone itself. Of course, experts from industry and family associations argue here – and you will probably never get a final answer to this question, since the basics of different lines of argument are far too complex. Parents are left a little in the rain when they try to find the right balance for themselves and their children.

Of course, it is logical that the realities on this subject differ from child to child – and above all from household to household. Ultimately, we have to consider the consumer behavior of our children and give them the basics of behavior and usage. But how exactly can you teach a child the right behavior with a smartphone or tablet?

Protection of the child’s soul

A distinction has to be made between two types of handling. On the one hand, there is the functional approach. And since a smartphone is not just a mobile phone with which you can reach your parents in an emergency, it is also a high-tech communication center through which you can continuously maintain contacts with chat apps, social media and the actual internet the responsibility of parents in introducing and further controlling how children use these devices, at a very high level. A fact about which one should be constantly overwhelmingly aware.

Girl makes selfie with smartphone
Image: © deagreez / Adobe Stock

On the one hand, there are now quite good child protection apps for smartphones, which, among other things, should ensure that children do not accidentally come across content on the Internet that could disturb them. Because with all good will, trust and clarification, we ourselves know enough situations in which we ended up on websites that we would actually have wanted to do without.

But even in the rather narrow circles of chat apps, a child can be induced to disclose data or media that are not age-appropriate. Or such files can be sent to it. Despite all the clarification, this risk also remains a great unknown when dealing with smartphones. At best, it never happens. If it does happen, it should be clarified beforehand between parents and child how to deal with it. A very sensitive topic, as the intimate sphere can also be breached. How to discuss such things would lead too far at this point. But what is certain is that it should be discussed prophylactically in advance so that your children know that they can come to you with any topic.

Children vs. smartphone vs. everyday life

Second, the purely physical and material handling of the device is important. Because even the cheaper models have their price. A smartphone is just not a toy that you just replace when it breaks. In addition to the actual device, data is also at stake. Phone lists, picture files, important memories that could be permanently lost on the memory card. With such a device, a total write-off costs more than the pure purchase price.

Basically, one has to say that one cannot make a statement about the age from which a child can use a smartphone in a purely physical and cognitive manner. Children develop completely differently. Parents should therefore primarily keep an eye on how the child behaves when dealing with other materially valuable and sensitive devices and objects. Fine motor skills should also be developed to such an extent that there is no frustration when a text or a search query has to be typed on the small displays.

The actual handling – i.e. the use of the device and apps – should not be entrusted to children flying blind. Practicing the handling together not only makes sense, it is absolutely advisable.

There are many more potential dangers!

Taken together, there are many other inconveniences and dangers that smartphone use can entail. These apply to children as well as adults. However, where adult people may not be able to do without using it for professional reasons, it is all the more important for children and adolescents to be moderate from the start.

Kinder spielen mit Smartphone im Strassenverkehr
A picture. that gives many parents goose bumps. Cell phones have no place in traffic! (Image: © Uzhursky / Adobe Stock)
  • On the one hand, even shy children run the risk of withdrawing too much into the digital world. More extroverted children could quickly develop a certain addictive behavior through apps like TIKTOK.
  • Smartphones also have a major impact on the little ones’ sleep behavior. The cool light of the displays can ensure that less melatonin (sleep hormone) is produced. In these cases, the sleep rhythm would be significantly disturbed. The effects are not limited to mood swings and the ability to concentrate, but sometimes even show up in slowed growth. Because healthy sleep is absolutely essential for physical growth for children and young people.
  • Bad posture or problems with the tendons in the hand and arm area are no longer a very new development, even for paediatricians. Frequent and prolonged use of the digital all-rounder means that children (adolescents) in particular are affected by physical complaints. It is not uncommon for the first signs of excessive smartphone use to appear due to tension headaches.
  • Last but not least, there should be clear rules for use in traffic and as a pedestrian. At best, the instruction is: Cell phones on the street are taboo. At most if you don’t move. So in the standing state.

How do parents go about it best?

Regardless of the age of a child, you should not have your first cell phone or smartphone available for free (24/7). In most families there will be good reasons (aside from consumer behavior) why your child should be given the opportunity to use such a device. So it makes sense to define clearly at the beginning why a cell phone was purchased.

In fact, it is common in many families to view the children’s first devices more like family cell phones. So they belong to the general public, but are available to the children for certain purposes, to be accessible outside the home. Only when it has been shown that the usage is working well and a certain basic responsibility (also in dealing with chats and social media) seems to be internalized, the strict usage rules are relaxed somewhat.

In this way, parents and children grow into the situation together. With the smartphone it is actually no different than with all other topics in education. It’s about mutual respect and trust on an equal footing. Just like family should be.


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