Many parents torn about giving children smartphones

Posted at 11:24 AM, Dec 11, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-11 11:24:28-05

EDITOR’S NOTE: This semester has partnered with VCU’s School of Mass Communications “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project. Students from the project reported the following story.

RICHMOND, Va. – A smartphone is a common item on the wishlist for Santa these days. But many parents struggle to balance their children’s wishes with the appropriate age to operate an iPhone or Android phone.

Dr. Rebecca Kiefer, a clinical psychologist in Richmond, said that there are some questions that parents should consider before purchasing such an expensive device. She believes that the best age for a child to own a cell phone really depends on the individual child.

“The parents should ask themselves if their child is responsible?” Kiefer said. “Will their child be targeted by a peer who wanted that mobile device? Will the mobile device be a conflict on the playground?”

Kiefer also believes that it is extremely dangerous and not a good idea for children to have unrestricted access to a mobile device. She said that research shows that it is important for parents to monitor and be in control of their children’s time spent on a mobile device.

The older children are, the more likely they are to own a cell phone. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 68% of teenager between the ages of 12 and 13 own a cell phone and so do 83% of teenager between 14 and 17 years. The smartphone adoption is lower with 23% of 12 and 13-year-olds and 44% of 14 to 17-year-olds.

Parent Leigh Anne Custalow said she purchased cell phones for her children when they were in middle school, because she was concerned about safety and emergencies.

“We felt that it would be beneficial to them to have a phone, so they could contact us if anything happened or they needed to be picked up after school,” said Custalow.

Candace Kelley thinks each parent’s situation comes into play when deciding what age is appropriate to purchase a phone for a child. Her daughter received a phone when she was 9 years old, because she wanted to be able to contact her child while she was visiting her father on the weekends.

“I would definitely say that the safety of my child was my main purpose for buying my daughter a phone,” said Kelley.

On the other hand, Courtney Burrell believes that owning a cell phone at an early age will hinder a child. She has two young children between the ages of 3 and 5. Burrell said that her children are far too young to have a cell phone, and she believes the appropriate age for them to own a cell phone is somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16.

“I believe they shouldn’t have it until they can pay for it,” Burrell said. “When I grew up, we were outside playing, hanging with friends. Nobody had cell phones. Kids these days just sit in their bedrooms, cooped up on their cell phones.”

Thomas Woodward, associate director for online learning and an innovations specialist at VCU, believes the appropriate age for a child to have a cell phone depends on the capabilities of the cell phone and the restrictions parents decide or don’t decide to use on the phone.

“If you give someone something as sophisticated as an iPhone, something that is also just a computer, you would have to think about all of the doors that opens in good and bad ways. It’s a delicate balancing act based on the individual and the parent’s comfort level on a couple different levels,” said Woodward.

Woodward, a father of four young boys himself, said that his sons are exposed to a lot of technology in his home, because its part of his own work.

Melanie Ortel, associate director of public relations for Verizon Wireless, said that her company has a solution in place to give parents what they need to customize and control mobile devices for their children. She said that Verizon Wireless is creating ways for parents to increase and fine tune their control over when, how often and with whom their children communicate.

“Today’s families recognize that mobile technology is here to stay. So, ensuring that kids enjoy its benefits in age-appropriate ways – through texting and app usage limits or contact list oversight – has become as much a part of healthy living as good nutrition and exercise,” said Ortel.

By Whitney Muse (Special to

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between and VCU’s School of Mass Communications.