The Average 6-Year-Old Has a Cell Phone in This Country

image source: thinkstock
image source: thinkstock

Last week my son turned 6 years old. It was a lovely day with cake, balloons, and action figures. The day after his birthday I chuckled as I scrolled by a headline about 6-year-olds and cell phones. According to data from a survey of parents, 6 is now the average age parents are buying kids their first cell phones. Six-year-olds get cell phones now?! Seriously? I can’t get my head around this one.

When I was 10 years old I received a Wedgwood blue, touch-button telephone. It was beautiful. It hadn’t even occurred to me to put such an item on my wish list, and yet upon opening the box on Christmas morning, I felt as if someone had handed me a Unicorn. A PHONE!! Looking back I can see why my mother gifted me the phone. I was just starting to be alone for a few hours in the afternoon while she was down the street in class. She wanted me to have a phone for my room so that I could feel secure and safe.

The phone was thrilling to have, but it served as mostly a paperweight symbolizing a defense against the unknown. I couldn’t imagine calling anyone on the telephone except the police or my grandparents. After all, the only phone numbers I knew by heart were my own, my grand’s, and 911.

Most of us got an email address and started surfing the ‘net in college. We remember a time before computers were in our homes, before we searched online for answers, and before cell phones. My friends and I got cell phones around the same time — somewhere in the mid-to-late ’90s.

That means most of us had our first cocktail before we ever signed a cell phone contract.

Our kids live in a completely different tech world. Of course they’d have access to technologies like computers and cell phones earlier than we did — because they’re actually available. The onus falls on us, the parents, to decide WHEN our kids should have items like cell phones.

Many of us have been placing smart phones into our children’s hands as soon as they could hold them. Apps on our phones helped entertain our little ones while we waited at the doctor’s office. They taught our kids shapes, numbers, and letters. We caved to allowing just a few more minutes of a video so we could finish a conversation with another grownup.

My family hasn’t had a land line since before my son was born. A touchtone phone would be a complete novelty item to him. Since I make most of my calls on speaker on my cell phone, he has no idea how to talk on a phone.

I found this out a few weeks ago when we were running errands, and I handed him the phone so he could talk to his grandmother. He held the phone in front of his face and spoke. I told him to put the end up to his ear. The concept was so foreign to him he handed the phone back to me in annoyance.

And yet, 6-year-olds yammering on cell phones is now a thing. According to data released by a study performed by Vouchercloud, 6 is the average age most children in America get their first cell phones.

The study asked 2,290 American parents with at least one child what kind of everyday technology items they’d purchased for their children. The parents were given a list of items to select. They then were asked at what age their children received those devices.

  • 96% of the parents surveyed indicated that they had purchased a cell phone for their children.
  • 83% have a TV or sound system
  • 75% have a tablet
  • 71% have a handheld gaming console
  • 65% have an eBook reader
  • 51% have an Xbox or Playstation

When I first read the study, I sort of nodded my head and thought, “OK. So this has got to be parents handing over old smart phones and letting their 6-year-olds play with apps.”

But then I read more from the study and it turns out these phones are being given for safety. Thirty-one percent of the parents who purchased cell phones for their children did so for “security reasons, so my child could always contact me.”

These numbers feel so foreign to me. I understand we want our children to be able to feel safe, but in an era where it seems like our young kids can’t even walk to school by themselves or go down the block to the neighborhood playground on their own, what use is a cell phone to our kids? Presumably we, or another responsible person, are within eye range of our kids.

Are 6-year-olds really getting phones for security reasons, or is this just something parents are telling themselves to make them feel better? To be honest I would much rather a parent come clean on surveys like this and admit, “I got my 6-year-old a phone so he would stop grabbing mine to play games on.” THAT I understand.

I usually feel ahead of the curve when it comes to kids and tech, but maybe when it comes to social tech I am lagging. I decided to talk to friends with older kids to see where they stood on the cell phone issue. Maybe it’s more normal than I realize for kindergartners to have a way to phone home.

I found out several of my friends equate being ready to stay home alone with being ready to own a cell phone. The responsibility and maturity levels needed for both work in tandem with each other.

Kymberli Barney from The Smartness is a middle school teacher and weekend web designer. Her oldest kids were given cell phones at the age of 11. Kym’s family had gotten rid of their landline a few years ago, so if the kids were home she wanted them to have a way to reach her:

“I did not want them here with no direct way to reach me, even if only for the 45-minute gap between their arrival and [my husband’s].”

Like me, my friend Liza Barry-Kessler got her very first phone (for her bedroom) at the age of 10. She was 30 when she got her first cell phone. Her son, Noah, is 9 and Barry-Kessler is just starting to think about whether or not he is ready to have a cell phone, just as she is just starting to think about whether or not he is ready to be home alone for very small pockets of time.

Jo-Ann Rogan is the lead singer of the recently reunited punk rock band, Thorazine. When her band first went on tour in the ’90s, she got her first cell phone as a way to advance the shows. Neither of her two boys have phones but she says her 12-year-old is BEGGING for one:

“I am starting to see he needs one. We are starting to leave him alone for short periods of time and we don’t have a home phone. He can’t email frantically for help!”

While Liz Henry from GeekHer allows her 12-year-old daughter to text on an old iPod and make calls to her parents on an old cell phone, she draws the line at smartphones. Henry says:

“I’ll go as long as I can so my my daughter isn’t on the social media grid.”

Matthew Wood of Vouchercloud believes the data his company collected will help prove that technology isn’t a bad thing:

“The fact that most 6-year-old kids have cell phones in their pockets while out on their bikes or playing with their friends shows just how much technology is part of our lives at a young age.”

I’m probably one of the most pro-tech parents around, but at the end of the day studies like this do nothing but tell you what the Joneses are doing. If other families are handing out cell phones and other tech devices to their kids, it certainly doesn’t mean you have to if you don’t want to or your kid isn’t ready for it.

We are nowhere near ready for W to stay home alone, so as far as I’m concerned, he has no need for his own cell phone. I do wonder if my feelings on all of this will change drastically over the summer when he will be gone for long stretches during the day for camp. I’m sure I will wish for a way to reach out and touch base during the day. Ha! A cell phone at summer camp! Not going to happen.

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