Move over debutante balls and high school dances, unboxing a brand new smartphone is the new coming-of-age ritual for today’s teens. Teenagers born in 1995 and after are the first generation to live their entire adolescence with a smartphone. In 2017, ten years old was the national average for receiving a smartphone. This profound and sudden cultural shift has fundamentally changed childhood and parenting. Smartphones are a new-found necessity and parents are scrambling to provide one as soon as possible.
Technology is an important part of our modern culture. In comparison to the rest of the world, the United States provides cell phones to the youngest kids. Everywhere you go there’s a child or teen glued to a screen. There are babies listening to “Baby Shark” in their strollers during morning walks with mom, toddlers playing Candy Crush in their restaurant booster seats, and teenagers scrolling their Instagram feeds while blindly following their parents around Costco. It shouldn’t be surprising that adults and kids alike spend more than half of their days staring at a smartphone screen.
With a smartphone in every hand, parents are peer pressured by their friends and begged by their children to provide one. Parents feel guilty for withholding one for too long because they see their children socially isolated. Yet, giving a smartphone to a ten-year-old today is fundamentally different than when parents gave sixteen-year-olds flip phones in the 90s.
Nokia Flip Phone vs. iPhone
Down to the basics, the main function of a cell phone is to call and send text messages wirelessly with no data. Smartphones such as iPhones, Androids, Google Pixels, and so forth have transformed those basic necessities. They need data and WiFi to power infinite applications and endless Internet access. Basically, it’s a mini-computer that is more powerful than all of NASA’s computing power in 1969…in the palm of your hand!
Unlike phones in the 70s, there are thousands of engineers and tech designers updating smartphones every day. Their job is to make sure that smartphones and applications consume all our attention. They dazzle us with colorful visuals, sound effects, and seamless switching between applications. Studies have shown that children exposed at a young age to these stimulating effects become wired to crave easy dopamine release. Instead of going outside and playing with their friends, they turn to their screens for pleasure
Sean Parker confessed to taking advantage of the human psyche when developing Facebook. The former president of Facebook explained their objectives were, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” He and Mark Zuckerberg knew that small hits of dopamine from notifications would hook everyone. Parker reflects, “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences…God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
It’s true. Silicon Valley’s tech executives have become wary of their own creations. They’ve noticed the negative effects on their own children. For example, Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs limits his children’s tech time. He even kept the iPad away from them when it was first released.
With all this power comes responsibility. Former Apple designer Tony Fadell struggles with whether his apple products have helped or hurt society. In his own children he has seen smartphone dependency:
“They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them — They get emotional about it, very emotional…They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”
Dr. Bennett details in her book, Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parenting Guide to Get Kids and Teens Internet Safe, how smartphone dependency is like that of drug and alcohol addictions. Whenever teens hear a notification or see new content, dopamine is released and pleasure is felt. If too much time is spent apart, the smartphone-dependent gets agitated. There’s even evidence that we get distracted just by having a smartphone near us, even if it’s turned off as if we are in a state of chronic hypervigilance for notification. She chooses to have a screen-free classroom, stating that the research demonstrates that, not only is the screen users distracted from the lecture, but so are those around them.
Notifications on smartphones can be so addicting they cause phantom buzzing or ringxiety. Daniel Kruger researched cell phone dependency at the University of Michigan. His study found that “if your phone is rubbing in your pocket or if you hear a similar tone, you might experience it as your phone vibrating or ringing, especially if your phone messages are highly rewarding to you.” That’s how adept our attention has become to our smartphones.
Many studies have tried to determine which age would be best for a smartphone. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) came out with guidelines recommending no screen use for infants under one year of age and only an hour a day for kids under 5. Dr. Bennett’s GKIS guidelines, which are offered in her must-have Connected Family Online Course, are consistent with this recommendation as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society also recommend no screen time for toddlers younger than two years old.
Many parents are under the false impression that virtual reality can replace real-life lessons for toddlers. But the psychological research shows that the skills don’t transfer over. For example, toddlers who play building block games don’t know how to build the same blocks when presented the toys in real life. This is because the toddlers didn’t develop the skills before seeing it on the Internet.
Furthermore, Dr. Bennett states in her keynote lectures that some kids are less likely to try a task after seeing performed on YouTube. It’s as if watching “scratches the itch” of wanting to do it themselves. How-to videos often demonstrate an effortless learning curve, as the practice and messy sessions are edited out – leaving a quick and perfectly executed trial to view. When a child tries out the task themselves, they can fall into “compare and despair,” feeling that their very normal imperfect trial was a failure rather than a healthy try.
Dr. Bennett recommends that, from two to twelve years old, children shouldn’t have Internet-enabled smartphones. A normal flip phone that only allows for calling and texting will suffice for any safety concerns. Some starter phones even have GPS tracking.
Those are a general rule of thumb since all children vary in maturity. Age doesn’t qualify a child to use a smartphone well but instead impulse control, social awareness, and true comprehension of what technology does. Bill Gates’ household requires at least one of the following to be met before a smartphone is given:
- Must be 14 years old
- Demonstrate behavioral restraint
- Comprehend the value of face-to-face communication
Dr. Bennett further points out that, even at 14 years old, kids don’t have the brain development to anticipate consequences and engage in high-order thinking. Just telling them what not to do will not keep them from making unwise, impulsive decisions online. In fact, kids are neurologically programmed to copy some of the cruel and vulgar behaviors they will invariably run across online, even with parental controls. Be prepared to calmly coach them through a variety of online mistakes. No child escapes it.
If you’re looking for a place to start, GKIS recommends Wait Until 8th. As of March 2019, 20,000 families across the entire nation have signed the Wait Until 8th pledge. These families have pledged not to give their children smartphones until at least the 8th grade. They emphasize that it isn’t the only path, but a path that offers a safe space for parents with the same concerns. Professionals in law, psychology, education, healthcare, business, and social work created the non-profit pledge. They’re parents who have seen the negative effects of premature smartphone usage in classrooms, court systems, private practices, communities, and households. By spreading the pledge, the Wait Until 8th Campaign hopes to:
- Increase engagement in education
- Encourage parents to set screen time boundaries
- Change society’s view on technology so children can live authentic childhoods
“Can I have one now?”
Your teens will eventually get a smartphone, like everyone else. We don’t want to restrict them for so long that they go wild once given access. But first, we have to coach them to make good decisions on their own. This way, we can better trust them to be mature when facing issues like cyberbullying and age-inappropriate content. As simple as they seem, smartphones are very powerful. With that power comes great responsibility for parents to make sure that smartphones are a tool we use, not a tool that uses us.
Already given them a smartphone or getting ready to start? It’s never too late to make some adjustments. Dr. Bennett has put together a reliable Screen Safety Toolkit to help you get started. This resource offers links and explanations of parental control options on devices, through your Internet service provider, and through third party products so you can match your child’s use patterns with the right toolkit. She also offers a bonus of great learning apps and websites to help your child build their joy of tech-assisted learning!
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
Works CitedAllen, Mike. “Sean Parker unloads on Facebook: ‘God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Axios, 2019. Baer, Drake. “The Designer of The iPhone Says He Worries About The ‘Nuclear Bomb’ He Brought Into The World.” Thrive Global, 12 July 2017. Baer, Drake. “The Science Behind Your Phantom Cell Phone Buzzes.” Thrive Global, 22 March 2017. Cohen, Danielle. “When Should You Get Your Kid a Phone?” Child Mind Institute, 2019. Cooper, Anderson. “Groundbreaking Study Examines Effects of Screen Time on Kids.” 60 Minutes, 9 December 2018. Curtin, Melanie. “Bill Gates Says This Is the ‘Safest’ Age to Give a Child a Smartphone.” Inc, 10 May 2017. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Wait Until 8th, 2019. Howard, Jacqueline. “When kids get their first cell phones around the world.” CNN Health, 11 December 2017.  “Our Team.” Wait Until 8th, 2019. Shannon, Brooke & Freed, Dr. Richard. “Parent Like A Tech Exec.” Wait Until 8th, 2019. Stein, Stacy. “An age-by-age guide to kids and smartphones.” Today’s Parent, 21 March 2018. “Why Wait?”.Wait Until 8th, 2019.