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A Majority of K-5 Students Have Mobile Phones, but Do They Need One?

By Cait Etherington
September 01, 2018

It’s hard to believe that only a decade ago, even some adults with full-time jobs and complex lives had not yet purchased their first mobile device. Today, not only do nearly all American adults (95%) have a mobile phone, so do most elementary school students. While it may sound perilous to put a $800 iPhone in the hands or lunchbox of a five-year-old, in many areas of the United States, this is precisely what parents now do on regular basis. But do kids really need their own mobile phones?

Kiddie Mobile Use by the Numbers

A 2016 Nielson study discovered that just under half (45%) of kids got their first mobile service between 10 and 12 years of age, but the most common age to get one’s first mobile service is 10 (22%). The study also found that a significant number of younger kids have already gone mobile: 16% of children report getting their first mobile service at 8 years old and 15% at 9 years of age. Not surprisingly, most (93%) are on the same plan as their parents, and 72% have access to voice, messaging, and data on their phones.

In terms of usage time, there is also strong evidence that every year, kids spend more time on their mobile devices. According to Common Sense Media, the amount of time children ages 0 to 8 years spend on mobile devices has tripled since 2011. As of 2017, 0 to 8 years old were spending just under one hour (48 minutes) per day on mobile devices. A recent British study similarly found that 20% of 5-7 year olds and 38% of 8-11 year olds regularly use mobile phones and that there is a strong upward trend with usage rates rising steadily each year.

Why Parents Are Equipping Kids With Mobiles

Among those parents investing in mobile phones for their elementary-school age children safety is generally a predominant theme. In Nielsen’s fourth-quarter 2016 “Mobile Kids Report,” 90% of parents said that their primary reason for getting their child a mobile was to ensure they could reach their child at any time. Eighty percent said they had invested in a phone for their child in order to track their child’s location while 66% said that their child has been asking for a wireless service, and they simply finally caved in. In addition, 65% of parents said their reason was pedagogical: They want to get their child accustomed to using mobile devices.

What Critics and Educators Think

Depending on who you ask, giving a mobile phone to a child is either a great way to promote safety, or equivalent to giving your child an ounce of cocaine.  After all, at least some people fear that children are increasingly developing mobile phone addictions, and the younger they gain access to a mobile phone, the more likely they are to become addicted. In worse case scenarios, phone addiction has been known to land some kids in rehab.

From a teacher’s standpoint, phones pose other types of challenges. Despite some school district’s “bring-your-own-device” programs, from heightened distraction to cheating on tests to cyberbullying, mobile phones in the classroom create new problems for educators.  In 2017, for example, administrators at Lewiston Middle School in Maine banned phones after they concluded that two student deaths were connected to cyberbullying. As Principal Jana Mates told the Maine Public at the time of the mobile phone ban, “Looking back at some of the events that have happened in the last couple years, just the increase in bullying and kids not really knowing how to use social media appropriately, we decided to ban [mobile phones] altogether.” But is banning phones in schools necessarily the answer?

Many countries, including France, have banned mobile phones in elementary schools since they started to become popular. Similar policies are in place in some U.S. school districts and at some individual schools, but mobile phone bans rarely work since many parents still insist that their kids bring a mobile phone with them to school. In some cases, conflicting opinions between schools and parents on mobile phones have even resulted in other problems. A few years ago, several New York City bodega owners were taking advantage of the school-parent conflict over mobile phones. According to one report, bodega owners were earning an extra $4 million annually by charging children $1 per day to store their phones either at a store or in a truck parked around the corner from a school.

So, do elementary or even middle school students need mobile phones? Evidently, it depends on who you ask. What’s clear is that if you’re a parent of a school-age child, even one just about to enter kindergarten, resisting the trend isn’t going to be easy.