The Crisis in Your Home: How Smartphones Harm Your Child

Children and Smartphones

If you’re worried about getting your child a phone or if you are regretting the fact that you have already given one to him or her—you are not alone.  In fact, I’m worried about it too.  And the more I read about smart phones and kids, the more concerned I get.  I’ve known for a while that this is an important topic and that I wanted to address it before my 10-year-old daughter’s peers got cell phones.  It turns out I may have waited too long.  According to a 2016 study from Influence Central the average age for a first smart phone is now 10.3 years old.  My daughter has affirmed this finding telling me point blank, “Mom, most of the kids in my class already have cell phones.” I knew that smart phone use in childhood came with potential pitfalls, but in preparing for this post I’ve come to better understand the true gravity of the situation.  I believe that this is actually a huge public health crisis.  And it’s in my home and yours.

To put it simply, the research is showing us what we already suspected to be true.  Smart phones and social media are highly addictive and using them without restraint is changing the way we interact with each other– for the worse.  To be honest, I now realize that I too am addicted to my phone.  I know how hard it is for me to disconnect from my phone.  I know that when I am bored or looking for a pick-me-up, it is the first thing I turn to for a quick “pleasure hit.”  I also know that it has gotten in the way of so many beautiful parenting moments when my children wanted my undivided attention. What I didn’t realize is that handing over this technology to my children without fully understanding its addictive potential is like handing them drugs and then wondering why they are getting hooked.  We watch our kids get addicted to this technology and then wonder why its use is leading to negative consequences.  We’re all a little guilty of ignoring the research about why granting our kids free access to smart phone use is a bad idea.

The thing is, it all happened so quickly.  Roger McNamee points out in his article Social Media’s Junkies and Dealers that the benefits of technology were so obvious, that it blinded us to the fact that having constant access to smart phones could be a dangerous thing. We knew that cell phones gave us unlimited access to information, increased our productivity level, and made it easy to stay in touch with others near and far– but we didn’t bother to ask questions about what the repercussions could be.  McNamee compares the rise of smart phone use to another historical epidemic that we now all recognize as problematic—fast food.  At first, pre-packaged, processed foods seemed to be a blessing due to their affordability and convenience, but as we all know, these foods turned out to be full of junk and their consumption has led to an international obesity crisis.

I am not arguing that we should turn back time and all give away our phones.  I am simply asking parents to look at the facts so that they can decide with intention how they want to hand over the mixed blessing of the smart phone to their children.

This issue is so important and nuanced that I’ve decided to dedicate two separate posts to the topic, rather than just one.

This first post is about the importance of understanding why waiting to get your child a smart phone until at least 8th grade is important — and about the importance of getting others on board with that idea too.

The next post, coming next week, will be about setting proper limits once you do get your child his or her own phone.  Keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity in that article to get a copy of The Constructive Parent’s Smart Phone Contract for Kids to help you set up parameters around your child’s phone use.

PART I:

Social Media and Smart Phones – a dangerous combination

Maybe it starts with your child’s friend getting a phone as a gift, and the next thing you know your kid is trying to convince you that if you don’t get one for her, she will be exiled to the bottom of the social totem pole. Of course, this desire to be able to connect with her friends is a healthy one, but the nagging feeling you have about the negative consequences for giving your child a smart phone is undeniable.  It is time to unpack exactly what those consequences are.

Kids are losing the ability to have face-to-face conversations.  Their social skills are decreasing, and their attention spans and boredom tolerance levels are rapidly declining.  But it gets worse. Jean Twenge, a researcher who studies generational differences, points to the simultaneous rise in smart phone and social media use as the cause of our kids “being on the brink of one of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”(Check out her in depth article in the Atlantic here).  As parents we know to be worried about pregnancy, drug use, and reckless driving.  It turns out that with the rise of smart phones the rates of all these things have gone down.  Great news, right?  Actually, what’s happening is that the draw of the smart phone is so strong that kids are choosing to stay home (instead of taking risks in the real world) and the result is loneliness that leads to increased anxiety, increased depression, and even increased suicide rates.  This crisis is that serious, and we can’t afford to stick our heads in the sand anymore.

Here is how the addiction starts. We know that the brain is wired to seek pleasure, and when we find a source of pleasure we lose sight of logic.  The release of dopamine is so tempting that it can motivate us to make choices that aren’t always in our best interest.  In his article How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind, Google Design Ethicist Tristan Haws explains that owning a cell phone is like having a tiny slot machine in your pocket.  Each time we check our phones and there is a “like”, text, email, or some other intermittent reward, dopamine is released in the brain and we become a little more addicted to the device.   The counter-point to this intermittent reward, is fear of missing out on reward opportunities—a phenomenon now known as FOMO (fear-of-missing-out).  We have all experienced FOMO—not wanting to miss seeing the latest “like” on our recent facebook post or not wanting to be left out of a group’s Snapchat conversation.    FOMO is a real thing that directly triggers the limbic brain—the part of our body wired to process deep emotional responses, including the well-known “fight or flight” response responsible for nothing less than our survival.  Social media engineers play on this deep-seeded and biologically ingrained fear and they develop apps that make it almost impossible to resist constantly checking in.  Think about how hearing your phone’s alert “ping” triggers you to pick it up and check in on Facebook or Instagram before you have even realized what you are doing.  If we understand that this is the way smart phones affect us, we should not be surprised by the way they are consuming our children’s every waking moment.

I Know It’s Hard to Tell Your Kids “no.”  Do it anyway.

Kids pressure us all the time to give them things we know they don’t really need.  When they are little, it is juice and junk food and extra screen time.  When they get a little older, it is inevitably a cell phone of their own.  Remember that deciding to give your child this privilege is a big decision. Of course, there are benefits but the consequences deserve serious consideration as well.  Sit down with your partner to discuss the pros and cons. Discuss whether or not you think your child is mature enough to respect your limits.  Talk to your friends with older children and get their advice (it is rare to come across a parent who doesn’t say they wish they had waited a little longer before giving their kid a phone). Be equally careful about giving your child an old phone without cellular service, his own tablet, or access to social media on the computer.  Consider what limits are important to you before you grant this access. If your primary purpose for allowing your child to have a phone is for safety, consider getting him or her a flip-phone without internet access.  If you have already given your young child a cell phone, you can take it back (that is part of your parental power).  If that feels too extreme you can strip it down to a basic “non” smart phone by turning off their access to social media and turning off their data plan.

Stick Together and Wait Until 8th Grade

In early 2017, Brooke Shannon started the Wait Until 8th Movement to help parents band together against the pressures to buy their children smart phones.  Already over 5,500 parents nationwide have signed the pledge.  Shannon was motivated by the negative changes in childhood which have been occurring in the past 10 years since smart phones were created.  Children are turning down opportunities to go outside, to be creative, and to spend time with friends, and instead they are choosing the instant gratification of smart devices over almost any other activity. In fact, the Kaiser Foundation reports that kids between the ages of 8-18 spend an average of 7.5 hours in front of screens for entertainment each day (11-14 year old’s spend 9 hours a day).  If you figure that kids are in school until about 3pm, that is basically all the rest of their waking moments!Screen Time vs. Lean Time

As mentioned earlier, the results of all this time spent staring at screens has been an increase in loneliness, leading to increases in depression, anxiety, and suicide.  Interestingly, Shannon points out that many top Silicone Valley CEO’s are waiting until their kids are at least 14 years old before giving them smart phones.

As kids hit adolescence their need to be connected with their peers is driven by a biological instinct for survival.  If you tell your child that they can’t have a phone even though all of their friends have one, it is unlikely that you will be able to hold out for long if you have to watch them being excluded and left out.  The beauty of the Wait Until 8th Movement is that it lets parents avoid peer pressure by bringing multiple families together with the same goal.  What is so special about 8th grade? Catherine Steiner Adair, author of The Big Disconnect points out that by the time kids hit 8th grade, they are developmentally better able to handle the responsibilities that come along with being a smart phone owner, but they are still young enough to allow you to guide them on making smart choices.

We love our children but are unfortunately giving them access to addictive devices that can rob them of their vitality. If this article hasn’t fully convinced you, or even if it has, I encourage you to do your own research.  With knowledge comes the ability to make smart parenting choices. You can be instrumental in protecting your children’s childhood by clicking here to learn more about the Wait Until 8th Movement.  Make a difference by taking the pledge if you have kids younger than 8th grade, and by using the links below to share the information in this article with your friends.

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  1. […] part one of this two-part series, smart phone ownership at a young age has its downsides.  Please follow this link, if you haven’t read that post yet, for more […]

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