I was asked for advice on whether children should have access to smart phones, it’s an issue that many people are discussing and seems worthy of a blog post.
Claimed Problems with Smart Phones
The first thing that I think people should read is this XKCD post with quotes about the demise of letter writing from 99+ years ago . Given the lack of evidence cited by people who oppose phone use I think we should consider to what extent the current concerns about smart phone use are just reactions to changes in society. I’ve done some web searching for reasons that people give for opposing smart phone use by kids and addressed the issues below.
Some people claim that children shouldn’t get a phone when they are so young that it will just be a toy. That’s interesting given the dramatic increase in the amount of money spent on toys for children in recent times. It’s particularly interesting when parents buy game consoles for their children but refuse mobile phone “toys” (I know someone who did this). I think this is more of a social issue regarding what is a suitable toy than any real objection to phones used as toys. Obviously the educational potential of a mobile phone is much greater than that of a game console.
It’s often claimed that kids should spend their time reading books instead of using phones. When visiting libraries I’ve observed kids using phones to store lists of books that they want to read, this seems to discredit that theory. Also some libraries have Android and iOS apps for searching their catalogs. There are a variety of apps for reading eBooks, some of which have access to many free books but I don’t expect many people to read novels on a phone.
Cyber-bullying is the subject of a lot of anxiety in the media. At least with cyber-bullying there’s an electronic trail, anyone who suspects that their child is being cyber-bullied can check that while old-fashioned bullying is more difficult to track down. Also while cyber-bullying can happen faster on smart phones the victim can also be harassed on a PC. I don’t think that waiting to use a PC and learn what nasty thing people are saying about you is going to be much better than getting an instant notification on a smart phone. It seems to me that the main disadvantage of smart phones in regard to cyber-bullying is that it’s easier for a child to participate in bullying if they have such a device. As most parents don’t seem concerned that their child might be a bully (unfortunately many parents think it’s a good thing) this doesn’t seem like a logical objection.
Fear of missing out (FOMO) is claimed to be a problem, apparently if a child has a phone then they will want to take it to bed with them and that would be a bad thing. But parents could have a policy about when phones may be used and insist that a phone not be taken into the bedroom. If it’s impossible for a child to own a phone without taking it to bed then the parents are probably dealing with other problems. I’m not convinced that a phone in bed is necessarily a bad thing anyway, a phone can be used as an alarm clock and instant-message notifications can be turned off at night. When I was young I used to wait until my parents were asleep before getting out of bed to use my PC, so if smart-phones were available when I was young it wouldn’t have changed my night-time computer use.
Some people complain that kids might use phones to play games too much or talk to their friends too much. What do people expect kids to do? In recent times the fear of abduction has led to children doing playing outside a lot less, it used to be that 6yos would play with other kids in their street and 9yos would be allowed to walk to the local park. Now people aren’t allowing 14yo kids walk to the nearest park alone. Playing games and socialising with other kids has to be done over the Internet because kids aren’t often allowed out of the house. Play and socialising are important learning experiences that have to happen online if they can’t happen offline.
Apps can be expensive. But it’s optional to sign up for a credit card with the Google Play store and the range of free apps is really good. Also the default configuration of the app store is to require a password entry before every purchase. Finally it is possible to give kids pre-paid credit cards and let them pay for their own stuff, such pre-paid cards are sold at Australian post offices and I’m sure that most first-world countries have similar facilities.
Electronic communication is claimed to be somehow different and lesser than old-fashioned communication. I presume that people made the same claims about the telephone when it first became popular. The only real difference between email and posted letters is that email tends to be shorter because the reply time is smaller, you can reply to any questions in the same day not wait a week for a response so it makes sense to expect questions rather than covering all possibilities in the first email. If it’s a good thing to have longer forms of communication then a smart phone with a big screen would be a better option than a “feature phone”, and if face to face communication is preferred then a smart phone with video-call access would be the way to go (better even than old fashioned telephony).
Real Problems with Smart Phones
The majority opinion among everyone who matters (parents, teachers, and police) seems to be that crime at school isn’t important. Many crimes that would result in jail sentences if committed by adults receive either no punishment or something trivial (such as lunchtime detention) if committed by school kids. Introducing items that are both intrinsically valuable and which have personal value due to the data storage into a typical school environment is probably going to increase the amount of crime. The best options to deal with this problem are to prevent kids from taking phones to school or to home-school kids. Fixing the crime problem at typical schools isn’t a viable option.
Bills can potentially be unexpectedly large due to kids’ inability to restrain their usage and telcos deliberately making their plans tricky to profit from excess usage fees. The solution is to only use pre-paid plans, fortunately many companies offer good deals for pre-paid use. In Australia Aldi sells pre-paid credit in $15 increments that lasts a year . So it’s possible to pay $15 per year for a child’s phone use, have them use Wifi for data access and pay from their own money if they make excessive calls. For older kids who need data access when they aren’t at home or near their parents there are other pre-paid phone companies that offer good deals, I’ve previously compared prices of telcos in Australia, some of those telcos should do .
It’s expensive to buy phones. The solution to this is to not buy new phones for kids, give them an old phone that was used by an older relative or buy an old phone on ebay. Also let kids petition wealthy relatives for a phone as a birthday present. If grandparents want to buy the latest smart-phone for a 7yo then there’s no reason to stop them IMHO (this isn’t a hypothetical situation).
Kids can be irresponsible and lose or break their phone. But the way kids learn to act responsibly is by practice. If they break a good phone and get a lesser phone as a replacement or have to keep using a broken phone then it’s a learning experience. A friend’s son head-butted his phone and cracked the screen – he used it for 6 months after that, I think he learned from that experience. I think that kids should learn to be responsible with a phone several years before they are allowed to get a “learner’s permit” to drive a car on public roads, which means that they should have their own phone when they are 12.
I’ve seen an article about a school finding that tablets didn’t work as well as laptops which was touted as news. Laptops or desktop PCs obviously work best for typing. Tablets are for situations where a laptop isn’t convenient and when the usage involves mostly reading/watching, I’ve seen school kids using tablets on excursions which seems like a good use of them. Phones are even less suited to writing than tablets. This isn’t a problem for phone use, you just need to use the right device for each task.
Phones vs Tablets
Some people think that a tablet is somehow different from a phone. I’ve just read an article by a parent who proudly described their policy of buying “feature phones” for their children and tablets for them to do homework etc. Really a phone is just a smaller tablet, once you have decided to buy a tablet the choice to buy a smart phone is just about whether you want a smaller version of what you have already got.
The iPad doesn’t appear to be able to make phone calls (but it supports many different VOIP and video-conferencing apps) so that could technically be described as a difference. AFAIK all Android tablets that support 3G networking also support making and receiving phone calls if you have a SIM installed. It is awkward to use a tablet to make phone calls but most usage of a modern phone is as an ultra portable computer not as a telephone.
The phone vs tablet issue doesn’t seem to be about the capabilities of the device. It’s about how portable the device should be and the image of the device. I think that if a tablet is good then a more portable computing device can only be better (at least when you need greater portability).
Recently I’ve been carrying a 10″ tablet around a lot for work, sometimes a tablet will do for emergency work when a phone is too small and a laptop is too heavy. Even though tablets are thin and light it’s still inconvenient to carry, the issue of size and weight is a greater problem for kids. 7″ tablets are a lot smaller and lighter, but that’s getting close to a 5″ phone.
Benefits of Smart Phones
Using a smart phone is good for teaching children dexterity. It can also be used for teaching art in situations where more traditional art forms such as finger painting aren’t possible (I have met a professional artist who has used a Samsung Galaxy Note phone for creating art work).
There is a huge range of educational apps for smart phones.
The Wikireader (that I reviewed 4 years ago)  has obvious educational benefits. But a phone with Internet access (either 3G or Wifi) gives Wikipedia access including all pictures and is a better fit for most pockets.
There are lots of educational web sites and random web sites that can be used for education (Googling the answer to random questions).
When it comes to preparing kids for “the real world” or “the work environment” people often claim that kids need to use Microsoft software because most companies do (regardless of the fact that most companies will be using radically different versions of MS software by the time current school kids graduate from university). In my typical work environment I’m expected to be able to find the answer to all sorts of random work-related questions at any time and I think that many careers have similar expectations. Being able to quickly look things up on a phone is a real work skill, and a skill that’s going to last a lot longer than knowing today’s version of MS-Office.
There are a variety of apps for tracking phones. There are non-creepy ways of using such apps for monitoring kids. Also with two-way monitoring kids will know when their parents are about to collect them from an event and can stay inside until their parents are in the area. This combined with the phone/SMS functionality that is available on feature-phones provides some benefits for child safety.
iOS vs Android
Rumour has it that iOS is better than Android for kids diagnosed with Low Functioning Autism. There are apparently apps that help non-verbal kids communicate with icons and for arranging schedules for kids who have difficulty with changes to plans. I don’t know anyone who has a LFA child so I haven’t had any reason to investigate such things. Anyone can visit an Apple store and a Samsung Experience store as they have phones and tablets you can use to test out the apps (at least the ones with free versions). As an aside the money the Australian government provides to assist Autistic children can be used to purchase a phone or tablet if a registered therapist signs a document declaring that it has a therapeutic benefit.
I think that Android devices are generally better for educational purposes than iOS devices because Android is a less restrictive platform. On an Android device you can install apps downloaded from a web site or from a 3rd party app download service. Even if you stick to the Google Play store there’s a wider range of apps to choose from because Google is apparently less restrictive.
Android devices usually allow installation of a replacement OS. The Nexus devices are always unlocked and have a wide range of alternate OS images and the other commonly used devices can usually have an alternate OS installed. This allows kids who have the interest and technical skill to extensively customise their device and learn all about it’s operation. iOS devices are designed to be sealed against the user. Admittedly there probably aren’t many kids with the skill and desire to replace the OS on their phone, but I think it’s good to have option.
Android phones have a range of sizes and features while Apple only makes a few devices at any time and there’s usually only a couple of different phones on sale. iPhones are also a lot smaller than most Android phones, according to my previous estimates of hand size the iPhone 5 would be a good tablet for a 3yo or good for side-grasp phone use for a 10yo . The main benefits of a phone are for things other than making phone calls so generally the biggest phone that will fit in a pocket is the best choice. The tiny iPhones don’t seem very suitable.
Also buying one of each is a viable option.
I think that mobile phone ownership is good for almost all kids even from a very young age (there are many reports of kids learning to use phones and tablets before they learn to read). There are no real down-sides that I can find.
I think that Android devices are generally a better option than iOS devices. But in the case of special needs kids there may be advantages to iOS.