Friday, August 28, 2015

At what age should schoolchildren get a cell phone?

Joel's comments: 

Professor Candice Odgers recently published several opinion pieces in newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. Based upon seven years of research watching how teenagers use their cellphones each day, she claims that "Sleep aside, the evidence is weak that being “constantly connected” is harming teens. Instead, adolescents’ online lives seem to closely mirror their offline struggles and strengths."  At the end of the article she states that she would get her son a cell phone when "at least half of his friends had one. According to a recent news report, that will be next year, in first grade."
Although her observations may be true for many children in terms of their psychology and social well being, increasingly clinical psychologists and psychiatrists in the U.S. and other countries are reporting that some children become addicted to virtual communication devices and others develop "nomophobia," discomfort or anxiety caused by the non-availability of a mobile phone, personal computer, or any other virtual communication device. (I will follow up by sending a summary of a few studies on nomophobia.)

Like many of her colleagues who have weighed in on the topic of when to give your child a cell phone, Professor Odgers fails to address the nascent peer-reviewed literature that finds various adverse health effects in children from chronic exposure to the electromagnetic fields emitted by virtual communication devices, especially mobile phones. These effects include headaches and migraines, hearing deficits, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral problems, sleeping disorders, and brain cancer.
Troy Wolverton, a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, recently published an opinion piece that takes a more prudent approach to dealing with the issue of when to give your child his or her first cell phone. Although he too did not address the risks from exposure to electromagnetic radiation, he has assured me that he intends to write a column about these health risks in the near future.


Back to school shopping: pencils, binders — and cell phones?

At what age should schoolchildren get a cell phone?

Candice Odgers, San Francisco Chronicle, August 27, 2015

While doing back-to-school shopping the other day, I was sorting through glitter glue and pencil crayons when my son turned to me with an urgent request: He “needed” a cell phone, he said, so his friends could text him. My son is 5 and does not yet know how to read.

I began to laugh, but his furrowed brow told me he was dead serious. He wanted that cell phone. The kind of phone he had used to Snapchat with older cousins, the sort clutched by the boy in the next aisle and, yes, the kind of phone I had just used to snap a first-day-of-school picture of him for immediate viewing by friends and family.

I had a flash of parental worry about how a cell phone could take over my child’s life. I’m familiar with parents’ anxieties about cell phone use, but as a developmental psychologist who uses cell phones to study adolescents’ relationships and health, I also have another perspective.

For the past seven years, our research team has watched how teenagers in our studies use their phones each day. And we have concluded that when it comes to cell phones, parents often worry about the wrong things.

More than 80 percent of adolescents in the United States now own a cell phone, and 1 in 4 teens report being on their phone “almost constantly.” And when they’re on their phones, they are mostly online.

Early on, parents’ fears about online activities focused on who their children might meet in cyberspace, especially online predators. As cell phones became more ubiquitous, parents started worrying their children were spending too much time on their devices, thus missing out on opportunities to develop social skills, sleep and learn.

But our research and the research of others has found that many adult fears are not supported by science.

For example, most children use cell phones to communicate with friends and family members, not strangers. Most teenagers’ text messages concern everyday topics, and are neutral or positive in content.

Online communication also can carry benefits versus risks. One study found children with strong early relationships communicated more frequently online and reported closer, more cohesive offline friendships. Shared online activities between parents and children are associated with better-quality relationships. And, for those young people headed off to college, mobile phones have been shown to keep college students more closely connected with their parents during this transition.

For the most part, studies suggest children who experience problems in their online lives are the same ones who struggle offline. For example, young people solicited by strangers online are more likely to struggle with substance use or behavioral problems.

Parents rightly worry about the dangerous practice of texting while driving — although adults appear to do this as often as teens. Early evidence also links time online to obesity, a matter worth investigating.

Like other parents, I also worry that ubiquitous cell phones increase the potential for cyberbullying. Children bullied online face increased risk for depression and other negative outcomes, and mobile phones offer bullies new tools.

But cyberbullying is still less common than traditional bullying, and has not created large numbers of new victims; more than 90 percent of those bullied online are also bullied offline.

So far, though, the clearest concern involves sleep. Most teens report sending text messages after dark, and 4 of 5 mobile phone-owning teens report sleeping with phones by their bedside or under their pillow. Not surprisingly, sending text messages after lights out leads to less sleep and next-day fatigue. Light emitted by screens also interferes with falling asleep and with deep sleep, critical for adolescents’ still-growing brains and bodies. Limiting device usage after dark could help ensure devices are not stealing our kids’ sleep.

We still have much to learn about how mobile devices are influencing this generation of digital natives, and parents and scientists need to move quickly to keep pace. But for now, parents may take comfort in this: Sleep aside, the evidence is weak that being constantly connected is harming teens. Instead, adolescents’ online lives seem to closely mirror their offline struggles and strengths.

As for my 5-year-old’s cell phone request, I told him we would need to wait until at least half of his friends had one. According to a recent news report, that will be next year, in first grade.

Candice Odgers is an associate professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. 

Children and phones

When and why should a child get a cell phone? Submit your thoughts (200 or fewer words) at

Related op-eds by Candice Odgers:

Parents, don't fret about your ‘constantly connected’ kids
Candice Odgers, The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada),  August 24, 2015

Secrets of teens and cellphones
Candice Odgers,Providence Journal (Rhode Island), Aug 26, 2015


Joel M. Moskowitz, Ph.D., Director
Center for Family and Community Health
School of Public Health
University of California, Berkeley

Electromagnetic Radiation Safety

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Twitter:                 @berkeleyprc

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