How Young is Too Young for Cell Phones and Facebook?

A common question we receive from many parents is, “At what age should I give my child a cell phone or allow them to be on Facebook?” Of course, this isn’t an easy question to answer since every child is different, and parents themselves are probably in the best position to determine the most appropriate age. That said, we usually advise parents to think about allowing access to certain devices or web environments a little bit earlier than they might think is the right time. The issue really is that parents need to be the ones who introduce the technology to the child, not the youth’s peers. If parents wait too long or try to convince themselves that their child has no interest in Facebook, then odds are high that the child will learn about the site from a friend and set up a profile without the parent’s knowledge.

We recently spoke to a teacher who is a parent of a fifth grader and asked our opinion about whether her son should be on Facebook. We told her that it probably wasn’t a good idea. It is a violation of Facebook’s terms of use, and agree with them or not, parents shouldn’t encourage their children to break the rules. Thankfully, there are many other emerging sites that are designed exclusively for tweens, such as Togetherville, which interfaces with Facebook. Admittedly, it is difficult to get younger social networkers excited about these alternatives since “all of their friends are already on Facebook.”

And some data suggests that they are right: Consumer Reports recently reported that as many as 13 percent of Facebook’s American users are under the age of 13 (about 7.5 million kids). And half or more of the students we speak to Facebook hasn’t completely ignored their rules, however, as they reportedly remove tens of thousands of under-aged youth every day. Of course, if a user lies about his or her age when setting up the profile, it is very difficult for Facebook to know whether someone is underage, so they rely on reports of violators.

Overall, parents should provide gradual and guided access to technology. Maybe, for example, you give your son a cell phone at age 10, but to start, the only people he can call are mom and dad. After a couple of months, if he demonstrates appropriate behaviors, you can add selected others. Then add texting. Show him the cell phone bill every month so he knows his contribution to the family expenses. Stress that the phone is a privilege that can be taken away with misuse. If he makes a mistake, take a step back. If he is texting at the dinner table, explain to him why this is unacceptable. If he is talking to friends all hours of the night, confiscate the phone for a while. We suspect that if more parents were actively involved in encouraging the responsible use of technology, even at a relatively young age, there would be fewer and less-serious problems later in their adolescent lives.


Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminal justice in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University. Together, they are co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center and have written numerous articles and have presented nationally and internationally on the topic of cyberbullying. They are currently partnering with school administrators at a number of different school districts to explore the nature of traditional and online victimization in student bodies.