When I set out to write this article, I was hoping to provide an antidote to the alarming stories I’d read about kids and smartphones. However, the research really does paint a clear picture. Study after study confirms that smartphones—and the apps children access on them—are highly addictive with the potential to cause significant developmental harm. Here is what parents need to know before getting kids a phone.
Unlike the bulky flip phone that once lived in my high school backpack, smart devices are a gateway to the Internet, social media and gaming apps. Tristan Harris, President of the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) and subject of the 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, famously compares smartphones to slot machines. Every time we check our phones, he says, we pull that lever. Occasionally, something exciting pops up, prompting a surge of pleasure in the brain, courtesy of the chemical messenger dopamine. It should come as no surprise that most of us check our phones about 160 times per day. We’re hooked! What’s more, our children have been watching. They want what we have, and they are even more susceptible to screen addiction.
Clinical Psychologist and Neuroscientist Divya Kakaiya, PhD is the founder of San Diego’s Healthy Within wellness center and speaks frequently about the impact of technology on the developing brain. She was not surprised to hear that my 8-year-old has been asking for a phone since preschool. “From a neuroscience perspective, they beg for it because it hits all those dopamine pathways the way cocaine or alcohol hit,” she says. “It’s the biggest dopamine hit they will ever get in their life.”
The Social Media Problem
Social media platforms have been carefully engineered to keep users scrolling, clicking and staring compulsively. The highly curated and edited images kids see tend to reflect an impossible standard of beauty. According to CHT, social media use has been shown to increase body dysmorphia in young people. Plastic surgery is on the rise, with the greatest increase among people in their teens and twenties. Not surprisingly, several studies have linked adolescent social media use with increased rates of depression and anxiety.
Social apps that are popular with kids—like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok—skillfully exploit a child’s natural desire for human connection. According to Kakaiya, online interactions are not the best way to grow relationship skills. “Children benefit from social-emotional connections they develop with friends, where they are learning emotional negotiation skills,” she says. “When we do these things online the brain does not receive the information the same way.” She warns that these apps give a false sense of belonging, when in real life, kids are feeling increasingly disconnected.
The Gaming Problem
Much like social media, gaming apps are highly addictive by design. One in 10 video gamers will develop a pathological addiction—one that damages their ability to function in multiple areas of life. Parents report difficulty convincing young gamers to engage with the family or complete homework. In severe cases, teens skip school and lose sleep to continue playing. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), pathological gamers experience increased levels of depression, anxiety and social phobia. Spending three to seven hours a day gaming leaves little time to foster the real-life relationships necessary for building empathy, resilience and well-being.
Violence is prevalent in many popular games—and that’s a huge problem. Kakaiya says our bodies release the same stress hormones during simulated battle as they would in actual combat. The brain and body behave as if the player is in actual danger. She warns that repetition accelerates learning—and since video games are repetitive by nature—gamers quickly learn to behave more violently. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the connection between violent video games and aggressive behavior is clear. More than a thousand studies confirm this. Repeated exposure to violent media is a stronger predictor of aggressive behavior than poverty, substance abuse or even having abusive parents.
What Can Parents Do?
Facilitate real-world connection. Young people feel an intense need to spend unstructured time together. If they can’t connect in person, they’ll want to do it online. Create opportunities for kids to gather in real life. Even if you’re overscheduled. Even if you’re the only parent who ever offers to drive. Here’s another challenge—provide the minimum level of supervision appropriate for the children’s age group.
“Let them fly!” says Psychologist and Parenting Expert Reena B. Patel. “Allowing children to spend time with their friends on their own helps build a sense of autonomy. It shows that you trust and respect them.” Training with a sports team isn’t enough to fulfill a child’s intense need for peer connection. Make sure the group is getting together after practice.
Consider smartphone alternatives. Parents who give their kids smartphones are often responding to pressing needs. For instance, some kids coordinate rides with multiple caregivers. Certain apps improve the lives of kids with special needs. GPS tracking may be important for children who walk home. In some cases, those needs can be met with “dumb phones”—basic phones that allow kids to text or call without harmful distractions. Every major cell carrier supports one. Or, check out www.gabbwireless.com for GPS-enabled phones and watches. Gabb devices operate like dumb phones, but look and feel like the smart devices kids feel pressured to possess.
Set limits. If smartphones have a place in your home, set clear boundaries. Work together on a technology contract (find help at www.sandiegofamily.com/parenting/how-to-make-a-family-digital-citizenship-contract), to include screen time limits. The best way to prevent or break the cycle of addiction is to reduce time spent on the device. It’s easier to loosen restrictions than tighten them, so be stricter than you think is necessary because it’s hard to regain control. If you change your mind about an app, game or device your child has been using, stand firm. Kakaiya warns that behavioral blowback could last up to two weeks after the technology is removed—kids may yell, and be nasty and disrespectful. “They are literally going through withdrawal,” she says. “They may promise to do extra chores if you just give it back—these are drug-seeking behaviors.”
- Take the “Wait Until 8th” pledge. If 10 or more parents from your child’s school agree not to give their kids smartphones until eighth grade, you can combat peer pressure together. Visit www.waituntil8th.org.
- Center for Humane Technology provides simple steps that anyone can take to immediately improve their relationship with technology. Visit www.humanetech.com/take-control to get started now.
- Watch and discuss The Social Dilemma on Netflix.
- If video game addiction has impacted your family, Game Quitters can help. Visit www.gamequitters.com.
More Things to Think About
The scope of the smartphone problem is too big for one article. Parents should consider these additional serious concerns:
- CHT warns that social media platforms profit by amplifying radical and polarizing content. Unfortunately, the majority of American youth get their news from social media—a hotbed for extreme politics and groupthink. Children are especially vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories.
- According to Wait Until 8th, cyber bullying has become a growing threat to childhood mental health. About 1 in 4 children report being bullied online.
- Children are accessing pornography at alarmingly early ages. Most kids say they discovered it by accident the first time. Sexting is also on the rise. According to a Thorn study, 40 percent of teens (ages 13-17) said it was “normal for kids my age to send nudes to each other.”
Anne Malinoski is a contributing writer and mother of two boys. After researching for this article, she plans to give her boys “dumb phones” in 8th grade, and smartphones in 11th grade.