Behavior & Development • May 23, 2011

Off to kindergarten … with a cell phone?

Have you seen the kindergartners with their cell phones?  The Firefly glowPhone, the iBaby, the LG Migo, the Wherifone and others are now favorite child safety gadgets that can be used as soon as your child knows how to manipulate two to five pre-programmed buttons.   They are intended for children as young as age 5.  Even the most phone-averse parents are starting to think twice.  They come with super-tight parental controls that limit incoming and outgoing phone calls and text messages to numbers which parents have pre-programmed into the PIN-protected phone.  So, your kids can only call and receive calls from adults you trust.  And they include GPS tracking of the phone in case you can’t find your child (or your child’s phone).

Benefits of Giving Your Kindergartener a Phone

  • Connect to your child if lost or in an emergency: These phones can easily connect you and your child if separated in a park or store, or if you miss each other at school or activity pick-up.
  • Give your child the freedom to call you whenever they want: Cell phones allow your children to call you whenever they want, without asking permission from an adult to use a land-line or traditional cell phone.
  • Improved pricing: New plans out in the past year are more affordable and provide pre-paid and unlimited calling options, along with no-contract, no-activation-fee options.  None of these early childhood phone options are cheap, though.  Pre-paid calling plans for the Firefly company start at 15 cents per minute.  The phones themselves run from approximately $50-$100.   

Risks Associated with Early Cell Phone Use

  • False security: While child cell phones are useful for monitoring kids while playing outside with neighborhood children, nothing replaces parental supervision. In fact, one study published in the medical journal Pediatrics shows that children with cell phones are more likely to be distracted and engage in dangerous pedestrian behavior, such as crossing streets with oncoming vehicles. Can a cell phone keep your child safe from a kidnapper or other creep? Maybe, if your child can manage to call you without them noticing. But you can bet that a cell phone is the first thing a kidnapper is going to get rid of.
  • Child distraction: A cell phone is a sure distraction to school work, socialization, or any other activity, even if cell phone use is sharply limited by parental controls. They are expensive and easily lost, especially when frequently shown-off to friends.
  • Rapid progression to texting, image messaging, and phone overuse:  All of the companies that market cell phones to very young children also market phones for older children that include full keypads, cameras, internet access, image messaging, and other features that provide more fun than safety.  How long will it be before your kindergartner wants a camera phone?  What about games or internet access?  Cell phone internet access creates enormous risks for children, even with parental controls.

Kajeet Phones

The Kajeet phones are an entire line of phones marketed towards children. This company boasts tight parental controls over internet access, incoming and outgoing calls and messages, and usage time.  Plans start cheap, as low as $5 per month, and the phones themselves start at about $30.  But the marketing goal is obvious!  Once kids start to think of a cell phone as a source of entertainment rather than a rarely-used safety gadget, the risks and problems of child cell-phone use become a monster difficult to tame.