A new school year is about to begin and, for many parents, it’s time to shop for school supplies. In addition to the usual list, many are considering whether now is the time for their child’s first smartphone.
As with most things in parenting, there are about a million factors to consider and no easy answers.
My twin boys are entering Grade 7 and many of their peers already have a phone or are getting one for junior high. Indeed, by age 12, 71 per cent of kids have a phone. But our family is saying no to smartphones for now.
We’re not alone. There is a growing chorus voicing serious concerns about kids and smartphones, particularly social media. And while some say that having a phone does not equate with social media use, for most kids it’s the same.
Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube — each of these apps are, by design, hugely popular with kids. Most teens now communicate purely through Snapchat, sending snaps at all hours of the day just to keep their streaks up (ask your kid what that is if you don’t know). For many, their social media “relationships” are all that matter.
This is a fundamental change to childhood, which is (and was for past generations) supposed to be about playing outside, spending time with friends, playing sports, reading books and time with family.
Many kids and adults view social media as being about relationships, but the truth is that social media users are products: advertisers on social media sites pay for the services, and it is users’ attention being sold. Ever more sophisticated algorithms attempt to keep that attention as long as possible.
We’ve all seen or experienced smartphone addiction. It’s no wonder; some researchers have found smartphone use triggers parts of the brain also connected with heroin addiction and love.
It’s one thing for an adult to manage a smartphone addiction, but how can a child? Not well, as I’ve heard from many exasperated friends whose kids are addicted to their phones.
This isn’t good for them. Kids who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of poor mental-health outcomes, such as depression and anxiety. Social media use also likely perpetuates body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviours, social comparison and low self-esteem. An ongoing mental-health and suicide crisis, especially among adolescents and young adults, is well documented.
Kids can be exposed to harmful content, ranging from violent and sexual content to bullying and harassment. Compromised sleep quality and duration are other negative side-effects.
Many parents don’t want to face this reality yet these problems are coming to light every day. In May, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a call for urgent action to gain a better understanding of the full impact of social media use, minimize the harms of platforms and create safer online environments to protect children.
“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘Is social media safe for my kids’, ” Murthy said in his statement. “The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe and, in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.”
We were happy to learn that our boys’ junior high has a zero cellphone policy in classrooms, implemented because things were “getting out of control,” a teacher told me.
For now, our family is saying no to smartphones. We’ll follow the lead of the few families we do know whose kids don’t have phones and who seem, on the whole, happier. The argument that our kids will be left out of social networks doesn’t persuade us; any perceived benefits from social media are outweighed by the substantial potential for adverse experiences.
When it comes to kids and smartphones, it’s OK to hold off. Encourage them to enjoy the same type of childhood we did, based on the real, physical world, not the contrived and manipulated digital one. I believe they’ll be happier and healthier for it.
Melanie Darbyshire is the editor of Business in Calgary magazine.