Parental Guidelines: Are Smartphones Safe For Kids?

When you're a parent looking for a break, it's easy simply to hand over a screen and keep your kid busy. But are smartphones safe for kids?

By Rick Gonzales | Updated

Smartphones are everywhere and kids love looking at them. When you’re a parent looking for a break, it’s easy simply to hand over a screen and keep your kid busy. But are smartphones safe for kids? Should you let your child have an iPhone?

We live in a society where people have their heads down, noses firmly planted in their cell phones. On a busy street, at a sporting event, a concert, a restaurant; smartphones have taken over our lives. It’s not just adults, the young and old, everyone has a cell. Even pre-teens have made smartphone usage a way of life. But is it a good idea? When it comes to whether kids should have smartphones, it depends on who you ask.

Experts far and wide have differing opinions on the effect smartphones have on children. While this debate continues, the numbers can’t be ignored. In a recent poll, it was found that 25% of children six years old and under have a smartphone with almost half of them spending up to 21 hours each week on their devices.

Kids on Smartphones

Experts On How Smartphones Affect Children

In some parents’ eyes, a smartphone in the hands of a kid means relief. A mobile babysitter, if you will. But much research has been going on as to how smartphone usage effects a child’s brain development. It is a question of how children learn. They learn through experience. They learn through interaction. A child takes what they know, then builds upon it as they go through daily life.

As smartphones became more the norm, Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician specializing in child development, began to notice a lack of interaction between children and their parents. She noted that cell phones were hindering the bonding between child and parent. Working at a clinic in Seattle is where she began to realize the power the smartphone was beginning to take. A mother came into the clinic with her child in a stroller and took her phone out. “The baby was making faces and smiling at the mom,” Radesky says, “and the mom wasn’t picking up any of it; she was just watching a YouTube video.”

From here Dr. Radesky went on to conduct her own non-scientific study, observing families at fast-food restaurants. Most, she noted, went right to their cell phones. “They learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them,” she says. “They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. And if that’s not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones.”

What about the smartphone in the hands of a child? The first few years of a child’s life is critical in developing their brain. The nature of this growth is the permanent base on future learning. The real world is where a child develops best. Learning from physical experiences helps children form the neural pathways which make their brains healthy and strong. For children, though, damage from too much smartphone activity can be permanent.

Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, warns, “The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary – all those abilities are harmed.” It’s the ability to interact, to understand and read people’s feelings, to be able to empathize, these factors form the foundations of a child. When a child spends their formative years staring at a screen, it can drastically affect how they develop in the world around them.

As children age, their ability to interact on a face-to-face level takes a hit. Kids become more comfortable dealing with a phone screen than a real person. And this lack of social interaction can become dangerous. Brian Primack, Director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, explains, “There’s strong research linking isolation to depression, and time spent socializing with improved mood and well-being. If smartphones are getting between an adolescent and her ability to engage in and enjoy face-to-face interaction – and some studies suggest that’s happening – that’s a big deal.”

Emotional challenges are also on the rise. Depression is on an uptick. The lack of social skills can be traced to smartphone use. As many have seen around the schoolyard, many kids who go out at lunchtime forego socialization and physical activity to sit around playing on their phones. And suicides in kids from ages 10 to 19 have increased dramatically. Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University says, “These increases are huge – possibly unprecedented.” But the effects of smartphone use aren’t just psychological. There is also a physical risk.

Smartphone Health Risks In Kids

Radiation from cell phones has been widely debated. There are many experts who have stated there is no link between cancer in adults and their smartphone use. But still, there is plenty of uncertainty when it comes to handing a cell phone to a child. Causing this uncertainty is the fact that cell phone use hasn’t been around for that long a period and it can take cancer years to develop.

What most scientists can agree on is that if cell phones are harmful, it will be the young children who are at the most risk. Dr. Annie Sasco of the Institute of Public Health, Epidemiology and Development in Bordeaux explains, “If the penetration of the electromagnetic waves goes for four centimetres into the brain, four centimetres into the adult brain is just the temporal lobe. “There are not too many important functions in the temporal lobe – but in a child the more central brain structures are going to be exposed.” Dr. Sasco went on, “In addition kids have a skull which is thinner, less protective, they have a higher content of water in the brain, so there are many reasons that they absorb more of the same radiation.” This concern is real. But without definitive proof, only warnings will exist.

There are other physical risks aimed at children. Sleep deprivation is one. The blue light emitted from a smartphone is intended to mimic daylight. If children are allowed to use their smartphones in the evening, it can confuse the brain into thinking it is daytime. This interrupts a child’s sleep cycle.

Cell phone use can also contribute to childhood obesity. The lack of movement or exercise smartphone usage promotes can be quite unhealthy. A child needs time to get out, move around, jump and play, allowing them to develop a strong body, heart, and mind. Sitting still for such a long time does nothing for a child’s health.

Because children continue to develop, eye strain can be a concern. Staring at a small screen for long periods of time can cause what’s known as “digital eye strain.” Its symptoms include blurred vision and headaches. That way your body is situated and the use of certain body parts can also be a concern. Children experience neck, shoulder and back pain. They also experience pain in their hands and thumbs from overuse.

How Kids Benefit From Using Smartphones

Are there any benefits to allowing children smartphone use? In the age of technology and the direction it’s taking, the ability to work this technology is a plus. Using a smartphone enables the child to learn how to multitask. They are better equipped to make quick decisions and develop visual acuity. Games on a smartphone help children develop peripheral vision. Their visual-motor skills are improved. The problem-solving and decision-making portions of their brains are used more often.

Parental Controls On Smartphones

While the pros and cons of giving your child a cell phone will continue to be debated, the one real concern all parents must have is giving children access to the internet. Studies indicate that many parents do not put online restrictions on their children. That could easily turn into trouble.

From hackers to predators, the internet can open up issues that families may not be able to recover from. Most experts agree that if you give your child a smartphone, it’s critical that parents understand how to monitor their use.

There are many apps that give parents the power to control how their kids use smartphones. On iPhones Apple has an app called “Screen Time”. Once the app is loaded, you can set it up quickly. It features a variety of helpful tools that allow adults to monitor downtime, which lets a parent set the time where their child does not have access to their phone. It can set time limits on specific apps on the device, or block certain apps like TikTok altogether.. It also has the ability to control content and privacy, a huge plus that restricts explicit and mature content from various sites such as music and websites, app stores while setting up permissions so your child can’t make changes to the privacy settings.

“Family Time” is another popular app that carries many of the same features as Screen Time. This software allows a parent to set times for homework and bedtimes, shutting them down after these times are up. It has a feature for geofencing, which gives the parent an alert when the child’s phone leaves or enters a specific area and location tracking, so you know where your child is at. Family Time also allows the parent to control or block on an app-by-app basis. There are internet filters, contact list monitors and a parent can also monitor calls and texts.

Are Smartphones Smart For Kids?

Technology is not going to stop. It’s only going to get better, faster, and offer as many options as possible. It’s only natural that families are adapting to and using the tech of the future in ways they feel can be beneficial. But parents need to be smart. They need to be vigilant on how much they allow their children to use these devices. There are plenty of ways to make this work, plenty of ways to keep your child safe and plenty of ways to help ease your child into the technological future. It only takes you looking up from your own screen to make that happen.