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phones: how young? 3, 4, 5, 6, ?

Many parents will find themselves in a debate about phones: can I have one? what sort should it be? how old is old enough? what should I do with it? and more. Some parents might reply with: they are expensive, they might fry your brain, they could be a backdoor to bullying, or maybe at 4 they are simpy not appropriate. Cue family tensions and arguments.

Curiously, this precisely mirrors the debates that many parents were engaged in about computers back in the 80s (see this 1985 video for a conference showing children as young as 2 using a macintosh computer - or this tiny phone sized version of the same video). Computing at 2 was seen as radical at the time. Of course, what matters is what you do with the computer. This is why with Tom Smith (who was the illustrator) I wrote a little booklet for the BBC, and we filmed a series of TV programmes, both entitled "Help your child with computers at home". Today those debates are over (although access and equity remain problems for policymakers). The curriculum, and mainstream media like the BBC, now expect that many children will have computers pre-school and will use them for useful learning and enjoyment activities. Indeed the BBC's Cbeebies website was redesigned with a target age range of 0-6 years olds.

Back in 1992 Phil Miles of Island Sound Radio asked me about age and computers - this is what I said in reply (you can here the whole interview from here). In short, back in those days I often said the moment that a baby is able to roll onto a keyboard and notice that something has happened as a result is the time to start thinking about finding a way to get them a computer and thinking about what they might do woth it that is appropriate. 20 years on, I haven't changed that advice, but now we have phones too and the cycle is repeating.

This page and the links on it are designed to help parents approach the great phone debate rationally. There will always be a lot of hype, politicking, false moral panics, salesfolk and uninformed commentators, all confusing any debate about children and technology. I've tried to steer a path through what we know, rather than simply reflect on what people's prejudices are. It's not a research report, simply advice.

summary for busy parents

The debate is not simple. Even what we mean by a phone today is no longer very clear.

Giving a phone to a very young child helps them to understand the different components in their hyper-connected world. Many adults struggle to understand these components and, just as with computers before, that misunderstanding may often be at the heart of damaging "ban and block" prejudice.

The key is not the phone, it is what children do with their phones - passively watching streaming video is not good on a TV set, it is not any better on a phone. Making, doing, problem solving, creating, communicating, talking, txting... in fact anything interactive, contributory or collaborative is helpful.

Games and other media have clear parental guidance about age ratings. It is always important that you observe this guidance.

even briefer summary: with a phone that can be worked easily - this would include iPhones and some Android phones - there really is no "too young". If a child can work it without frustration, it is helpful for them to have one. This could certainly be as young as three or four. Parents still have a really important role in guiding appropriate use, observing age ratings etc.

brain science

a brain
We have discovered so much more about how the brain works since the mid 1990s. The short version is that the brain, from a very early age, spends a lot of time trying to make sense of chaos. One way it does this is to build taxonomies to help it to understand -it puts things into "lists" so that it knows what they are and how they behave. These lists may be culturally different - people who live in the Arctic famously have more than 50 words for snow; similarly the Himba of northern Namibia call the sky black and water white, whilst for them blue and green share the same word. They see the world in a different way as a result. Early years are hugely important here - first three months, first three years, first decade... We know that children with early exposure to mutiple languages are cued to be better able to be bilingual, there is no 'too early" for children with music, or speech. Research suggests now that exposure to hearing speech whilst still within the womb can help language to develop early (but I'm not suggesting phones for pre-birth babies!).

This isn't a sequential thing; in understanding the subtle nuances that distinguish txting, talk, email, tweets etc from each other it will not be helpful to introduce just one, than add a second and then another in a serial way because concepts are shaped by the first exposures and subsequent media would then be "fitted in" to the naive understanding thus developed. A parallel approach would be preferable. Many adults struggle with the role of email vis a vis txting; they simply don't see the needs met by twitter, or dismiss relay-chat because they have no real model of the differences and simply do not know what is appropriate to use and when.

The assumption here is that today's hyperconnected world will last and evolve rather than being just a hula-hoop fad. Parents must make their own judgement on this, but currently it doesn't look ephemeral does it? If it does last then, as with speech, early use and capability is good.

If you want to go a little further with brain science, try these useful three links to work by by Mark Treadwell one | two | three.


a roast chicken
In the very early days of mobile phones (or car-phones as they were then often called) a Scandinavian education minister said to me, with complete conviction, that if you put a raw chicken in the aerial of an active mobile phone, it would roast. She "knew" this to be true, and had read "evidence" to that effect. Moral panics like this are not uncommon. Hopelessly wrong, but not uncommon. Consequentally, parents worry about just what is, and isn't, true. What does the evidence tell us?

This transcript from a helpful ABC programme in Australia exploring the issue in a balanced way is helpful. Neurosurgeon, Kate Drummond is an expert on brain cancers. In the programme, she comments about her patients that "It's in the media all the time and they ask and I tell them that I don't think that there's any evidence that, that mobile phones have caused their cancer". And a lot of formal reports come to the same conclusion. For example even back in 2000 The Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) - known as the Stewart Report - concluded that the balance of evidence was that exposures to radio frequency waves below ICNIRP guidelines did not cause adverse health effects to the general population, as did the Zmirou Report in France in 2001, and the Health Council of the Netherlands report on the topic in 2002. And of course phone technology has improved a long way in the decade since then - with battery life so important to sales, phones are using and emitting less and less power.

However, common sense suggests that really heavy use - sales reps and folk who practically live on their phones - may require a more cautious approach - using earphones to talk for example. In practice children txt and message more than they phonechat anyway. This "more typing less speaking" should perhaps be encouraged.

A word of caution: since initially very few young children had phones, there is less data than for adults. In that case, it seems wise to limit very high usage of phones by children. The Stewart Report specifically included a recommendation that "excessive use of mobile phones by children should be discouraged", but "excessive" was very high levels of use indeed.

The impact of radio frequency diminishes with distance so that txting at arms length is even safer. Since highest output from phones would be when they are trying to make a call in marginal areas good practice to encourage with all users, not just childrne, would be to initiate a call, then watch the dial for the moment of connexion rather than wait with it on your ear listening for the connexion. Again, as with road safety, early rules are a good way to establish wise habits that currently too few adults exhibit.

The short version is that what parents need to encourage are good habits of use. No use at all is not a way to develop appropriate behaviours.

Anyway, if you need it, the full ABC transcript is here for more detail.

There is also the danger of spam and innapropriate txts arriving - something many adults will have experience of. The simple rule here is never put your child's mobile number into a website - a rule for you and for them to observe. Even websites you trust will sometimes make money from selling-on your number. Your child should know that their number is special, but iff things do go wrong, change the number, don't hestitate.

what is a phone anyway?

an old car-phone

It used to be so simple. A phone was a phone and phoning was all that it did. Today though, an iPad or tablet can make Voice Over IP (VOIP) calls, including Skype. Txting is supported from many IP connected devices, a mobile phone can also be used for Skype, FaceTime and more. In a world where a phone can be used as a computer and a computer can be used as a phone the function of a "phone" is really just one more app on your pocket device.

Schools struggle with this definition too. As tablets get smaller (iPad mini with a 7" screen) and phones get larger (the Samsung Galaxy Note III is currently the largest with a 6" screen) the line between devices of all sorts gets more and more blurred. Saying "No" to a phone is not straightforward any more as a result. It certainly helps an understanding of the overlapping roles of these different devices to start early in exploring their use.

At this point, the "evil' phone starts to look like something of a paper tiger - 纸老虎 as the Chinese would say.

which phones?

dead phones

Getting the right phone is important.

Although by 5 years children might already be reading and writing well enough to begin to understand when to be brief and when to say more, when images can be added and when not, and might be comfortable reading cues and clues from the interface, at 4 or 3 this is rarely the case. Some current phones have an interface so intuitive that pre-readers can use them with relative ease, others are hair tearingly complex to use. Some are so simple that even dolphins can use them! If the early years user's experience is of frustration then all the gains from early use will be lost.

For some parents, rewarding progress in writing and reading with a text savvy device may be a sensible idea. "When you can send a message we will give you a phone". For other parents ownership of a phone by their child may be the initial key that unlocks a little more reading and writing. You know your child best.

But be clear: better no phone than a bad phone. And yes, that does raise a host of equity issues for some children, as do musical instruments, sports equipment, bicycles, holidays and more. If you can afford it, don't wait till everyone else can too.

parents should...

PEGI ratings

As with TV viewing (see below) the technology in your child's life should be something that you talk about together. It should lead to lots of conversation. It is not there as a baby sitter.

Research is clear that developing a "sense of other" in your child is rewarded by less bullying, better social integration and much more. The ability to use the phone to reflect on others ("I wonder what Aunty Sonja is doing today, it is raining where she is") is significant and helpful.

Phones can offer games, TV shows and more. But be very clear that these have an age rating for a reason. In the Uk for example games are covered by the PGEI ratings. A PEGI 3 game should not contain any sounds or pictures that are likely to scare or frighten young children.

Please please please observe these ratings. Young children playing games aimed at teenagers can be damaged and that will often result in significant behavioural problems. Don't kid yourself that your child is special and can cope, if it asks you to be cautious about acess to a game or movie below a certain age, it means it. Don't stretch the edges.

maybe parents should not...

watch with mother BBC TV logo

Curiously, despite all the moral panic and gainsaying opinion presented about mobile phones at home or in the classroom, the research evidence of the dangers that streaming TV or video presents is largely unequivocal and yet hugely ignored. If, having read the above, you are still worried about phones then you should long since have thrown the TV out of the window for your child's sake.

There is a well-established literature showing the adverse effects of passive screen watching experiences on the cognitive development of children under three. This particularly applies to children passively viewing alone; if they do watch, then the old BBC title of "Watch with Mother" had it right - parents should sit with them, chat about what is being watched, point out things they might have missed, be active viewers, together. Keep it short. This applies just as much on a pocket device as it does on a wall mounted TV.

A sensible maximum of passive viewing might be say 30 to 40 minutes before 9 or 10 years old. Rarely or even never, for the under 3 year olds. And here is a great strategy for parents - try trading TV passive viewing for phone access. "Yes, you can have a phone, because the interactivity and use of complex communication strands will be good for you, but we will trade it for less passive viewing". Watch a lot less TV and you can have a phone. The subscription you provide might be made to depend on this - the more TV your child forgoes, the better the data, txt and calls provided in their phone plan. But you need to ensure that they are not then simply watching TV on the phone instead.

Keep computers, games consoles and phones out of the bedroom. If your chuild is in bed, their phone should be charging somewhere else, where you can see it. They need their sleep. Between the ages of five and 11, your child will need 10-12 hours of sleep a night (by the way, sleep is also crucial for teenagers - while they snooze at night they release a hormone that is essential for the growth spurt during puberty).

Tech free bedrooms are a good thing.

safety first

blue light
And finally, a small child with an expensive mobile phone, or bicycle, or anything else, is a potential crime target. Good habits, mum carrying the child's phone, looking around as you talk, remembering traffic - these are all sensible behaviours that can be established early on.

A word about bullying might be helpful here. Bullying is always hurtful and is one of the biggest curses of many children's lives - they carry the scars forever in many cases. There is plenty of good advice on bullying, but one big "advantage" of the bullying that comes digitally is that it is saved, traceable and can be presented as "evidence". Cyber-bullying is very very rarely an issue with the youngest children, but it will help if they know how to save and capture things they may want to chat to you about (an iPhone captures its screen with a simulateous press of the home and power button for example). Again, the key thing here is discussion with them about what is on screen.

No doubt in 10 more years, just as with computers, folk will be wondering what all the fuss was about. Phones have already gone from being something you might get to be "ready for big school", to something you got to prepare you to be "ready for big school", to something that helps parents know their children are safe, and finally to a debate about pre-school phones. But by the time we are comfy with all this, the next argument will have begun about smart glasses or data implants, or whatever.

In the end helping children to use technolgy well begins early, very early. That's all you really need to remember.


this web page created on January 5, 2013 and last updated on June 24, 2013 8:23 AM
© professor stephen heppell