Phones for kids

Sprint released a cell phone designed for 5 through 12-year-olds this month, another milestone in technology evolution that begs the consideration of how young is too young for a child to have a cell phone.

A 2011 study out of Bridgewater University found that 18 to 20 percent of third-graders own cell phones, a percentage that increases steadily until middle school age, when 83 to 84 percent of children have them.

Sprint’s new WeGo phone boasts an affordable, simplified phone that gives parental control over contacts, contains a GPS device, several alert systems and a “School Hour Silence” function, among other things, and though it might be the future of high-tech parenting, it still does not completely clear up the gray area people face when debating whether children should have cellphones.

“There are safety concerns involved when a child has a phone that can be important to watch out for,” said Chuck Larrick, CEO of L&P Services in Marietta. “Most of the issues involved are centered around texting and social media, where children become vulnerable.”

Larrick helps lead group therapy sessions with children, where leaders strive to educate parents and families about the pros and cons of buying a child a cell phone.

“Kids can get addicted to them, and it can really mess up relationships with parents,” he said. “Once you can text anyone at any time or can constantly be on the Internet, communication problems arise.”

Larrick said that though smart phones, which can be found in the hands of children at younger and younger ages recently, are often the biggest problem, a phone like Sprint’s WeGo phone might be the compromise parents and children need.

“This could be a unique opportunity for kids to have phones that’s an alternative to an iPhone,” he said. “Something that has its limitations and promotes safety features could really be a positive thing.”

Other companies also offer versions of phones marketed to the youngest users.

Verizon Wireless has yet to come out with a phone specifically designed for children, but instead offers FamilyBase, an added feature that provides a dashboard of parents’ phones to monitor Internet usage and allows them to control texting and calling.

T-Mobile offers the program kidConnect, which allows parents to limit childrens’ calls and text to help keep bills low, and AT&T offers FiLIP, a smart-locator durable wristwatch for children that can store five pre-programmed phone numbers and has a GPS system.

All kid-friendly products and features, including the $120-WeGo phone, tries to answer parent concern with added safety.

“Sprint WeGo is the perfect starter phone to give parents peace of mind while teaching kids responsibility – how to keep track of a device, charge it and care for it,” said David Owens, vice president of product for Sprint, in a press release. “This device has all of the basics without anything younger children don’t need just yet.”

It is what children “don’t need yet” that tends to cause the most stir with parents.

“I think 13 and up should be the cut-off for kids having phones; any younger than that and they’re opened up to all kinds of access that they do not need,” said Jennifer Ireland, the mother of a 7-year-old in Vincent. “There are dangers that if they’re young they can’t handle, and when they have Internet and texting, lots of things can happen.”

WedMD’s article “Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?” suggests several medical disadvantages that children face with cell phones, citing prolonged exposure to radiation, lack of sleep if they keep phones with them at night, and distraction, which is associated with poor communication skills and puts children at higher risk for stalking and kidnapping.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily about their age, but it’s about how responsible they are,” said Jane Chadwell, a grandmother of three from Barlow. “If they’re mature enough to take care of a phone and use it for what it’s supposed to be used for, then it can be a useful tool for parents to check in and make sure they’re safe.”

Lori Evans, M.D., director of training in psychology at the NYU Child Study Center, contributed to WebMD’s article, and said age is not the most important factor when decided if a child is ready.

“Kids in carpools may not need phones, but kids traveling on a subway or walking to school may,” Evans said in the article. “It’s about who they are as individuals, what’s going on in their lives, and how much they can handle, not a certain age or grade.”

Larrick said if children already have a phone from the start, his group tries to work with families to use them effectively.

“We try to work with them so they know how to be safe and get parents to understand that they need to put limits on them,” he said. “Phones are expensive, and children need to learn that it’s a privilege, not a right.”

The average child now gets a cell phone by the age of 12, according to Sprint’s research, explaining the sharp rise in ownership among middle school-aged children.

“I mostly just use mine to text, but I have some games I really like to play too,” said Lily Constable, 10, of Marietta. “I have an app where I can make music videos that I really like, and it’s all really fun.”

Lily’s cousin Hailey, 11, also of Marietta, got a smart phone for Christmas last year, and said she understands that her phone is not just for talking to her friends.

“We go on bike rides and go outside a lot with my family, and if I have my phone I can text them if we get separated so they know where I am,” she said. “But when that’s not happening, I really like to use it to check Instagram.”

Lily and Hailey both attend Marietta City Schools, where use of cell phones is not permitted except for certain circumstances.

“They serve as a communication tool to make sure the parents know the kids are safe,” said Phillips Elementary Principal Joe Finley. “We let them keep them in their backpacks, but they always run the risk of them being stolen or lost.”

Finley said some students will try to bring them for other uses anyway, and that is where issues arise.

“Texting, taking photos-they haven’t really been used for any kind of deception, but we are concerned that they can get out or be used inappropriately,” he said.