We live in an era where not only does every adult own a smartphone, but most teenagers and even young kids do as well. My ten year-old has been asking for one for at least two years and many of his friends, including those younger than him, come to play, smartphone in tow. They’re asked to place it on the kitchen counter and can grab it again when they go home.
On the one hand, who can blame my son for wanting one, too? According to this Time magazine article, “We Need to Talk About Kids and Smartphones,” ten years old is the average age kids receive phones. On the other hand, despite pressure from other parents, him, and his friends, I’m not giving him one—at least not yet. Here’s why.
Anecdotal and Clinical Research Are on My Side
Mothers have an intuition. I can’t speak for fathers, but I’m sure many do as well. Ever since my son’s friends started coming over to play at six years old with an Android, iPhone Touch, or any other battery-powered thing, I didn’t like it.
Now, I’m not an old-fashioned parent, although I do homeschool. I’m a millennial, and I appreciate technology. But I could see right away 1) there was simply no need for my young son to have a phone yet and 2) it would only serve as a huge distraction. How do I know? I’m a grownup and my own phone is a distraction from the daily tasks of regular life.
Fast-forward a few years later and loads of anecdotal and clinical research have only proved this mama’s intuition right. I didn’t need it, but data backs me up and only affirms the gut feeling I had and the choice I made to hold off on giving him a phone until there was a pressing need.
In an article in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation,” author and psychologist Jean M. Twenge writes she has been studying “generational differences” for 25 years and notes smartphones have adversely affected young people in a way few predicted: “Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Phones Distract from Intimate Connection
Another reason I don’t think my son needs a phone yet is because smartphones are distracting. They encourage lack of focus and self control, not only on the present moment but on real people. How do I know? They distract me and my friends. Have I mentioned yet we’re grownups?
Think about how many times you scroll Facebook while at the grocery store or see a driver checking his or her phone while at a stop light (or driving!). If grown-ups find phones distracting, and sometimes prefer to scroll Twitter than text a friend back because it requires less effort and thought, how much more will young people?
Time reported, “Parents, teens and researchers agree smartphones are having a profound impact on the way adolescents today communicate with one another and spend their free time. And while some experts say it’s too soon to ring alarm bells about smartphones, others argue we understand enough about young people’s emotional and developmental vulnerabilities to recommend restricting kids’ escalating phone habit.”
In the same article, high school guidance counselor Colleen Nisbet tells the reporter about how phones distract from real people and intimate connections: “Lunch was always a very social time when students were interacting and letting out some energy. Now they sit with their phones out and barely talk to each other.”
Experts have long linked isolation to depression. Quality time with other people can improve a person’s mood and well-being. As Brian Primack, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health, said, “If smartphones are getting between an adolescent and her ability to engage in and enjoy face-to-face interaction—and some studies suggest that’s happening—that’s a big deal.”
Smartphones Accelerate Our Temptation to Compare
The Time author features Nina Langton, a teen who has it all but still struggles with depression, to the point of attempting suicide. The culprit? Doctors and her parents pinpointed her smartphone’s access to social media that allowed her to compare herself to the beautiful, no-doubt-filtered photos of models on social media. Who can blame her? I’ve closed a Kardashian Instagram feed feeling kinda bummed, too.
Adults reading this have two things going for them that “tweens” and teenagers today don’t: They neither grew up with instant access to “other” worlds via social media and smartphones, nor do they (typically) lack the ability to understand the facade of those things. Adults know Instagram isn’t exactly real life and typically can make peace with it if they’re grounded and mentally healthy.
For teenagers, I suspect it’s more like living in “The Truman Show”: They’ve grown up looking at Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat so much that it is real to them. This is dangerous and a breeding ground for depression, loneliness, and other problems.
Not All Kids Need Phones, Either
Finally, I haven’t given my son a smartphone yet because he doesn’t need it. Really. Does any 10-year-old? Grant it, my son is homeschooled, so he’s around home a little more than other kids are, but he is a member of three instructional co-ops and multiple extracurricular activities, including a baseball league that has two practices and a game once a week.
We have an emergency cell phone at the house if I skip out for a few minutes, so he can call if he needs. Still, I don’t see a pressing logistical need. His desire to be just like his friends, while important, doesn’t outweigh my other concerns. If you think your tween really needs a smartphone, ask yourself: How did you survive your childhood without one?
Is my son old-fashioned? Am I? Am I setting him up to be unprepared and nerdy? Perhaps. He’s not a perfect kid, but he’s also kind, enthusiastic, well-adjusted, and hilarious. This may or may not be due to the fact that he lacks a smartphone, but with the tsunami of choices ahead when he does get one, regarding apps, social media, videogames and more, I’m not prone to welcoming a device that might upset that balance just yet. Particularly when the only pressing reason to do so is just to be like everyone else.