Smartphones are everywhere now, and their diffusion has spread from adults to students in high school, then junior high and now even elementary school. The trend has led to the question: When and how should kids use smartphones?

Parents, of course, are battling with this question. Should they let their children have a smartphone, with the unrestricted access to the Internet they provide? On the one hand, parents want their kids to become digital-literate, and to fit in with their young peers who also have the latest gadgets. On the other hand, the news is rife with stories of young people involved in Internet crime or becoming victims of bullying on social networks.

In January 2009, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology issued a notice to schools across the country requesting that elementary and junior high schools ban cellphones on the premises, and that high schools set usage restrictions or prohibition.

In March, officials in Kariya in Aichi Prefecture announced a smartphone curfew of 9 p.m. for children, and requested the cooperation of parents. According to the website 47news, the idea was hatched by a group comprising members of the local school board, the PTA and local police.

Teenagers reportedly feel mounting pressure to reply endlessly to their friends in chats on social networks such as Line, in case their lack of reply is interpreted as a snub. If everyone was forced to put down their phone at 9 p.m., well, that would be a great excuse.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare researched smartphone penetration among students in March 2013. Among students who owned a cellphone, 7.6 percent of elementary, 25.3 percent of junior high and 55.9 percent of high school students had a smartphone, and that has continued to increase. More than 95 percent of those high school students said they access the Internet on it.

Some parents see a cellphone as a way to protect their children. In response to demand, cellphone manufacturers have been creating specialized handsets since 2006, on which kids can call only a few designated numbers, and can be tracked by GPS if they go missing. All Japan’s major carriers offer such cellphones at a very low price, hoping that the kids will become accustomed to owning a phone and will grow into loyal customers.

Such simple phones may be OK for younger kids, but when their friends move up to smartphones, desire for online socialization becomes a powerful lure.

In the pre-smartphone era of tailored cellphone Web services such as i-mode, the mobile carriers themselves were the only Internet providers for the browsers on feature phones. All Internet access went through the carriers’ gateways, so it was easy for carriers to filter content. This worked especially well as a way to control what kids could see. Cellphones sold to kids had a strict filter by default, so the users could only see “safe” websites.

But smartphones are different. They can connect via Wi-Fi, and teenagers know they can access any website by connecting in this way.

In Japan, public Wi-Fi is several steps behind the West. But because of a combination of cellphone carriers wishing to offload some of the burden caused by the proliferation of bandwidth-hungry smartphones and the government gearing up for an influx of tourists for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Wi-Fi hotspots are becoming more widely available — and, of course, these can be used by kids, too.

There are actually apps available that parents can use to increase security on their children’s smartphones. But even if the parents are tech-savvy enough to install these, their kids are often smarter still, and know how to get around the restrictions.

The smartphone boom is also influencing the toy industry. For example, Takara Tomy’s toy smartphone MyTouch has not only games and fortune-teller apps but, interestingly, its own Line app that can be used to communicate between MyTouch handsets. And in August, a new version of the toy will be able to connect to a parent’s smartphone to exchange messages online. Line clearly hopes to groom these kids to join its 50 million domestic users when they get a real smartphone.

And on July 31, toy maker MegaHouse will release Fairisia, a smartphone for kids, on which parents can easily limit usage.

Although the current generation of parents did not have smartphones when they were at school, they did have similar issues. Dengon-dial (a voice message board service), pagers and bulletin boards on i-mode were a lot of fun, but also a hotbed for bullying and teen prostitution. But for many parents, deciding to let their kids have a smartphone is a question of when, not if. Knowing the dangers and benefits of their kids’ communication tools is one thing — the real issue is how to monitor them.

Akky Akimoto is a Japanese blogger for Asiajin and Cybozu. His Twitter @akky has about 120,000 followers.

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