In 2011, almost 21,000 children in grades 3 through 12 were surveyed to see how children eased their way into cyber-life and, possibly, cyberbullying. To make a long story short, starting with 8 year olds was smart because they could read the survey; but it was also pretty dumb, because as it turns out, 8-year-olds are already entirely immersed in digital technology. Over 90 percent were already interacting online with other kids, usually in games. Silly me. Rates of cellphone ownership surprised me as well.
By fifth grade, about 40 percent of the children reported owning cell phones or smartphones. By third grade, about 20 percent reported such ownership. Of those owners, half (10 percent) reported that they owned smartphones (cellphone devices that can text and go on the Internet), and the other half owned cell phones without those capabilities. And as it turns out, that difference is a very important one.
Most parents tell me that they buy their child a cellphone because they want contact in an emergency. That begs the question: so why buy a smartphone? Why not just buy a much cheaper cellphone? Some parents say it’s convenient to have a mobile gaming device on hand at times; others tell me that they want their child to be electronics-savvy; still others didn’t understand that there was a choice in the matter. And it’s true that as a parent, I’ve run into more than one situation where I would have welcomed a small digital distraction (airplanes come immediately to mind). I also should point out that my position on technology and children has always been that practice and education are the best approaches.
Despite that, it was startling to see in the data that children with smartphones in third grade had a four-times greater rate of being a victim of cyberbullying, in comparison to non-owners. Even children who had only cellphones had an elevated incidence of victimization, but their rates were only double that of non-owners. Ten percent of non-owners, about 20 percent of cellphone owners and about 40 percent of smartphone owners were victims online. These cyber-victimization differences began to disappear after elementary school, probably because cellphone and smartphone ownership became quickly much more common than not. It’s worth mentioning, too, that apart from being a victim, other risks are associated with excessive electronic device usage, namely, the displacement of interpersonal play, which is so critical for healthy development. On the other hand, poor skills, greater vulnerability, and a tendency to go hog-wild online are the behaviors one tends to see in teens who have been given no exposure to the digital revolution.
Mind you, I would never say that all of this is an easy choice. But it’s important to note that as parents we don’t have to deny the advantages of early smartphone ownership to acknowledge the risks. The important thing in parenting is to be aware of both the costs and benefits when you do the analysis.
Page 2 of 2 - Dr. Elizabeth Englander is the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. Do you have situations or questions you’d like addressed? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.