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Few young children can call 911 on smartphone

May 1, 2021

Most children ages 4-9 years were unable to dial 911 on a smartphone when they witnessed a simulated emergency, a recent study showed.

Many young children use mobile phones to play games, watch movies and video chat, but little is known about whether they can dial 911 and report an emergency.

Researchers, therefore, designed a simulation to assess whether children could recognize an emergency, dial 911 and tell a dispatcher about the situation. The 50 children participating in the simulation were told ahead of time that they would be practicing what to do in an emergency.

During the simulation, an actor pretending to be a school helper read a book to the child in the school library. He took a call and then put his phone where the child could see it. Later while eating a snack, he started to cough, put his hands around his neck (the universal sign for choking) and collapsed on the floor.

If the child used the cell phone to call 911, another actor portraying a dispatcher answered the phone. Afterwards, the child was reassured that it was a simulation.

Eighty percent of the participants had regular access to a smartphone. Half of the parents said they had talked to their child about how to dial 911 in an emergency, and 34% practiced making the call with their child.

Results showed that 40% kindergartners and first graders and 80% second and third graders recognized the emergency. None of the youngest children dialed 911, and 20% of children in grades 2 and 3 dialed 911 and reported the emergency. Among those who dialed 911, 16% were able to answer the dispatcher’s questions.

The authors noted that while smartphones are replacing landlines, many school programs still teach students how to call 911 using a landline rather than how to bypass a passcode to make the call.

“In this study, we underscore the need to develop emergency skills education aimed at enhancing young children’s emergency preparedness in the digital era with a focus on developmentally appropriate strategies for building these skills in children as young as 4 to 6 years of age,” they concluded.

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