How young is too young for a cellphone?

A coveted device, a parental quandary

Victor Watch observes his son using an iPad. A phone may come soon.
Victor Watch observes his son using an iPad. A phone may come soon.

Second in a series of occasional articles on the impact of ubiquitous technology on ordinary life.

The first time Xavier Watch handled a cellphone or a computer he had just turned 4. Within weeks, he was browsing the Web on his father’s iPad and later his father’s iPhone, setting up his own music playlist and playing educational games.

Now that Xavier is 5, his father is considering getting him his own smartphone.

“I know it’s crazy, because what kid doesn’t have a cellphone these days,” says Victor Watch, a graphic designer. “On the other hand he is really young. But his first tech experience has been with a tablet, an iPad, and he’s demonstrated such a high skill level with it, that I think he might just be ready for his first cellphone soon.”


While 5 may still, in the eyes of many, be a bit young for a cellphone, the debate is one that all parents have nowadays: What is the appropriate age for a child to have a phone, especially one that can be used for video messaging and unfettered access to the Internet and social media?

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The average age at which kids get their first phones has declined steadily during the past decade, according to a 2010 study by the Pew ­Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and ongoing research by one of the study’s authors.

According to Pew, the typical American gets a first cellphone at about 12 or 13 — that’s down from 16 in 2004.

In 2004, 45 percent of people between ages 12 and 17 had cellphones. By 2010, it was 75 percent.

“On the surface, these numbers are self-explanatory,” says Scott Campbell, a University of Michigan communications professor and coauthor of Pew’s youth phone usage study. “More children are getting cellphones, and they’re getting them younger. But what we should consider when looking at this increase in phone ownership and usage among children is that it parallels cellphones being able to do more, being useful for more than just phone calls.”


Campbell’s study found that while cellphone owners in general still use the devices for talking more than anything else, among 12-to-17-year-old kids texting is the primary use.

A more recent study by Nielsen says that cellphone ­data use — including texting, e-mail­ing, Web surfing, and ­social media — tripled from 2010 to 2011, while minutes spent talking on phones fell in this age group from an average of 685 per month to 582.

The Nielsen study, which ­examined 65,000 teenagers’ cellphone bills, found that girls send nearly 4,000 text messages per month and teen boys more than 2,800.

The social media blog ­Flowtown conducted a survey of teen cellphone owners in 2010 and found that, after text­ing, 12-to-17-year-olds used their phones most for calls, ­social networking on sites like Facebook and Twitter, and e-mail, in that order. Flowtown’s survey also found that, to a lesser degree, 12- to 17-year-olds use their phones to take and share pictures, listen to music, and play video games.

Those are the so-called good uses.


“It’s reasonable for parents — especially since 70 percent of phones owned by kids are paid for by parents — to be concerned with how these devices are being used,” Campbell says. “Like so much personal technology, they can be great tools. But they can also be used for negatives as well.”

‘I often tell parents that . . . it is their responsibility to make sure their children are using them the right way.’

He added that his latest research shows that parents who make an effort to be as cellphone savvy as their children encounter fewer problems. Those that try to combat cellphone abuse by banning all cell use, he says, risk alienating children for whom text messaging is such a critical part of social connection.

Youthful misdeeds with cellphones are all over the news: kids bullying one another via text message, exchanging photos containing nudity and texting while driving. Parents balance these fears against the positives, chief among them the ability to make emergency calls and be reachable at all times.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Dorchester activist who counsels and mentors parents and at-risk teens, says that, among some he encounters, text messaging and calendar functions on smartphones are also increas­ingly being used to schedule fights and gang confrontations.

“I’ve advised some parents to consider getting their children more low-tech phones to help keep them out of that loop,” Rivers says. “It’s both sad and brilliant though. You want to fight or get into some nonsense and keep the adults in the dark? Schedule. The odds are in the kids’ favor that their parents and teachers aren’t ­going to find out.”

Such fears have created a ­vibrant market for software developers such as Chet Thacker, chief executive of Code9 ­Mobile, a company that makes content restriction and parental monitoring applications for cellphones.

When cellphones first became commonly used by more than just a family’s primary bread-winner, in the late 1980s, parents hailed them as a great way to stay in touch with teenagers, Thacker says.

“Parents’ attitudes have definitely shifted over just how good cellphones are, as they’ve begun to consider bullying, sexual misconduct, and even wandering minds in school — digital daydreaming, you might call it,” Thacker says. “In the end though, I often tell parents that cellphones are inanimate. It is their responsibility to make sure their children are using them the right way.”

Dr. Tristan Gorrindo, a pediatric psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that regardless of a child’s age these days, parents would be wise to at least plan for that first cellphone, “but plan to show them how to use the technology responsibly, not just tell them, because if your actions with your cellphone don’t match up — for example using it at the dinner table or sending angry messages — with your words, your children will ­decide that they, too, can do whatever they want with their phones.”

“It really is best dealt with as a trust issue,” Gorrindo says. “Help your child by teaching them to earn trust with their cellphones. You could start by making them help pay the bill, through chores or if they’re old enough, a part-time job. Respon­sibility cultivates trust.”

5-year-old boy set for phone

Victor Watch was thrilled at his son’s progress with technology. But there were tense ­moments, Watch says, because he wondered if Xavier might accidentally stumble across mature material online that a child his age should not see.

“I think we dealt with that one the way any parent would with any area of concern with their children,” Watch says. “We taught him and made it very clear to him that some things are not meant for children. And frankly he gets that. He knows that there are things he should not listen to or see.”

During a recent “tech play” session at the family’s Brockton home, Xavier, overhearing some of his father’s concerns, brushed them aside.

“I don’t want to see the bad stuff,” he says. “I want to hear good music and read stuff . . . and play games sometimes.”

Still, reassuring as the boy’s attitude is, his iPad and iPhone use is monitored pretty strictly by whatever adult he’s with at the time — his parents, or his aunt Jackie, whom he visits often on weekends.

While he’s concerned about giving Xaxier a phone before he’s even ready to bicycle without training wheels, Watch says the experience could be worth it, because he can teach his son early the social pros and cons of cellphone use.

“I tell you what: If I wait till he’s a teenager, and then he sees just how many friends have phones, when he finally does get one he may go crazy and act out with it to make up for lost time, if that makes sense,” Watch says. “This way I can at least control the introduction.”

Dad who keeps watch on use

Control was all Lemuel Mills Jr. had on his mind when he gave his son and daughter their first cellphones.

“Thirteen was the magic age for me, with both of them,” says Mills, clinical coordinator for a special education program at Madison Park High School in Boston.

“My logic is this: they didn’t need phones before that. It is not an easy decision to give your child a phone. And leading up to that point, I had planned for it and knew I wouldn’t take it lightly.”

Mills says that his son ­Lemuel “L.A.” Mills, who is now 15, began to engage in more extracurricular after school activities when he turned 13, and that justified his getting a phone.

“At that point, he was out of reach, out of sight, away from home more often,” Mills says. “S0 I decided it was time. It made sense. My daughter Leigha on the other hand, had a different situation. She’s been in a private school, a more controlled setting. And she simply didn’t need a phone.

“There was no justification for it. Now, she’s in a different school setting, and it’s inevitable she’ll be out and about more like her brother. So she recently got her first phone, so we can stay connected. As far as I’m concerned these devices are about communication between parents and children first and foremost. Anything else bears watching.”

While he insists he trusts L.A. and Leigha, who turned 14 last Sunday, Mills says kids with unlimited access to technology can be tempted to use it inappropriately, no matter how well they’re trained.

“I don’t think my sister or I would ever use our phones for anything out of order,’’ L.A. Mills says. “Especially since our dad is watching, but more ­because of how we were raised — just not to get involved in craziness. And if we’re not going to do it in person, we’re not going to act crazy with our phones. Besides, he watches. And he randomly checks our phones when we’re not expecting it to see what kinds of kids we’re talking to or texting with. He tells us it’s like driving: It’s not us he’s worried about. It’s the other person.”

Guard against bullying

Danielle Evans, a college student in Boston and single mother of a 5-year-old, says she grew up on the tail end of the generation when cellphones were almost exclusively used for phone calls.

“When I was in high school just four or five years ago, people were just starting to send nude pictures of themselves — and other people — by text message,” she says. “And using the Internet wasn’t as big a deal, because it cost a lot. So it wasn’t like we were looking up a lot of nasty stuff. We really used our phones to talk and to schedule dates and meetings with each other. It is definitely different for my son. He’s young, but I have no doubts, he has to have a phone.”

Evans says her young son, Brendan, has been bullied in school and by neighbor children when he spends weekends at his biological father’s house.

“They tease him and say he’s too smart, he’s a nerd, or he’s too soft,” she says. “It seems harmless, but we see what bullying can do to kids. So in Brendan’s case, yeah, he’s ready for a cellphone. And he already knows that when he gets it, it is to stay in his backpack unless someone is bullying him more than he can take. Then he needs to take it out and call Mommy right away.”

Brendan nods at his mother’s explanation. He will get his new cellphone — either a Firefly, Kajeet, or Just5, all models designed for kids, with little-to-no Web or texting access and with calls limited to parents, 911, and two or three other programmed numbers — sometime this summer, Evans says.

Asked if he will spend too much time “playing” on his new cellphone when he gets it, Brendan emphatically shakes his head, no.

“I won’t need to play on it. I have Gameboy,” the precocious youngster says.

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@ Follow him on ­
Twitter @JamesBurnett.