Seattle's Child

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kids and phones

Ask the Pediatrician: When should kids get cellphones?

Also: Addressing worry over COVID masks and speech development.

COVID masks and speech development; kids and phones

Ah, September. Back to school and kids in class. We’re seeing steps in the right direction, but unfortunately it is still a complex and fluid time: new COVID-19 variants, children under 12 years old not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, and low vaccination rates in some areas.

The good news is kids are back in school and we know how to keep them in class and in person — masking, vaccination if eligible, frequent testing and staying home when sick. Get the flu shot as well: It’s that season.

I share everyone’s frustration, worry and, frankly, fatigue. Some schools have already jumped back to an online format; hopefully this will be short term. It does keep us on our toes and makes scheduling tricky.

Let’s keep on being strong and holding the course. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us to find joy in small things, flexibility and the value of getting outside.

COVID masks and speech

Do masks affect speech and language development?

This is a thoughtful question we never would have considered a few years ago. While we are all looking forward to a time when face masks are not needed, the priority now is to stay safe, reduce the transmission of COVID-19, and keep schools open. Babies and toddlers have now spent a good percent of their life in the pandemic and young children interact with caregivers and preschool teachers in masks.

Language development begins early. Starting at birth, babies observe their loved ones’ faces and listen to caregivers. While there is still much to be learned, there are no current studies that suggest using a mask negatively impacts speech and language development. While not exactly the same, language development in visually impaired children has been studied extensively. Language skills in sighted and unsighted children develop at the same rate.

Make the most of unmasked time at home with small children.

Young children and babies at home get lots of mask-free time with their immediate families. The more words a baby hears, the better their language and communication skills will be. Continue to talk, sing, read, and play peekaboo with your baby. Minimize screen time so that your child can focus on your face and words.

If you have questions about your child’s language development talk to your primary care provider.

Kids and phones: the eternal debate

What’s the right age to let your child have a phone?

This is a big topic in our house. Tweens back in school want more freedom and this leads to conversations about phones. The right time to get a phone will be different for every family with factors including the age of your child, if they have unsupervised time, and if they walk or bus to school or activities.

Let’s think about how children of different ages use phones. A recent study shows that about 36% of elementary school students have cell phones. They tend to use them more for video, games, and photos, rather than for communication. Cell phone use and “need” increase in middle and high school, when more kids are using phones for communication but often use social media to communicate, rather than texts or calls. Approximately 69% of middle school and 89% high school students have cell phones. No surprise there.

When to give your child a cellphone really depends on each family situation. The truth is, I am torn. There are some very good arguments for cellphones and safety. Families of children with underlying medical conditions are more comfortable if their child is easy to reach. Children who are starting to exert independence such as walking to school, connecting with friends, or staying home alone for short periods benefit from the safety and security of having a cell phone. Especially because many of us no longer have land lines.

There are big downsides to cell phones, particularly smart phones. I worry about the endless connection to social media leading to distraction during school or homework. The pressure to respond in the moment can disrupt sleep. Exposure to unrealistic body image, unhealthy activities, and online bullying are concerns.

What is a family to do?

There’s not a clear right or wrong, here the truth is at some point: kids will get phones. It’s our job, ultimately, to help our kids become smart media consumers. Here are a few suggestions:

Discuss how to be safe online: Have open and ongoing conversations, starting at an early age, about being safe online. Teach children not to share any personal or identifying information online.

Create a family use media plan: Agree as a family to rules around screen time and phone use.

Place limits on the phone: Many families have a “walking phone” only used when the child is out on their own.

Make your smart phone into a “dumb phone”: Disable the phone so it can be used for calls and texts but not social media or internet connection.

Check the phone at night: Put the phone away at an agreed time so sleep or homework are not disrupted.


More health news in Seattle’s Child:

Ask the Pediatrician: Why does my kid suddenly stink?

Balancing kids’ desire for independence with the need to keep them safe

Flu shot guide for Seattle-area families, 2021-22



About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.