I am a mother of two daughters ages 13 and 10.  As my oldest approached middle school (which starts in 6th grade in my county), we were faced with the same question as other parents – smartphone or no smartphone?  I weighed all of the considerations – safety issues (we live within a mile of the school, and she would be biking every day) and social issues (I didn’t want her to be a social pariah without the ability to text with friends to coordinate social events, stay up on inside jokes, etc.)  – and the benefits won out.    

However, about two years into having a smartphone, I have regrets.  She used to be an avid reader, sneaking books and a flashlight in bed and reading until 10:30pm.  I obviously allowed it because why would you discourage reading?!?  Now, she barely gets past 10 pages of a book, instead feeling a pull to scroll endlessly.  and while she doesn’t have social media accounts, I can’t seem to stop video shorts being fed to her through a browser.  Here’s how that plays out IRL – we were out at an event and had to wait in a line before the doors opened.  Someone came over to talk to us, and my daughter kept her face in her phone and didn’t remove it until I pushed it down to signal she should engage in small talk.  I thought this was rude and was mortified that this reflected poorly on me as a parent – did I not teach her any manners?!?  Additionally, as a society, are we losing the ability to engage in small talk?!? 

As a researcher, I was curious, perhaps even desperate, to know if parents of similar aged children were struggling with the same issues.  I ran a short survey among parents of school aged kids (ages 6-17).  The results showed that I’m not alone.  Most parents made a similar decision as me – 8 in 10 (80%) said their child has a phone and, on average, the first phone was given at a little under age 12 (11.9) with middle school being a popular time period for phones (41% got it in 6th-8th grade).  Since my youngest (age 10) has mentioned some kids in her 4th grade class with a phone, I perhaps wasn’t surprised to find that even one-third (34%) of parents said they got one for their child under the age of 11. The parents’ motivations for getting their child a smartphone were not unlike mine – safety/security (62%) and the ability to communicate with parents when not together (59%), which provides peace of mind to the parent (91%).  However, parents too are noticing that their child is distracted by their phone (48%), reading less (28%), and are less physically active (27%). 

Despite these negative implications, parents overwhelmingly feel that the benefits of their child having a smartphone ultimately outweigh the risks. They find their children to be more communicative about their whereabouts (44%) and have more independence (43%).  About half (52%) of parents are generally happy with their choice of getting a phone but do regret access to some apps (33%), particularly social media apps (73%).   

If ultimately the goal is safety and communication and we increasingly recognize the negative effects on mental health, couldn’t we achieve that with a basic feature phone with calling and texting capabilities?  Children are already connected to the internet – six in ten parents said their child already had two or more devices connected to the internet before getting a smartphone so why was it necessary to give them one in their pocket?   

Is it because communication is so different for younger generations that a phone number is not enough?  It seems that the answer is yes.  They don’t share their phone numbers but instead share social usernames such as their “Snap.” They don’t just communicate through text but instead through emojis or videos they may create using apps such as CapCut. 

I did thankfully find nearly half of parents (49%) who wished like me that they had waited until their child was older to get them a smartphone because their child is staying up too late (43%), are exposed to too much mature content (41%), and losing interest in other things (39%).  All parents, regardless of their child’s age, believe, on average, that a child should get a phone around 13 (13.3) and even later for access to social media, at nearly 15 years of age (14.9).  In light of the surgeon general’s call for a warning label to be added to social media, this research seems more relevant than ever.   

I personally feel powerless as one parent to create any real change in this area without other parents coming along and nearly half of parents feel the same (49% agree that they feel helpless as one person to create any real change around the negative impacts of youth smartphone usage).  However, legislation would be an uphill battle as hands down parents feel they as parents have the sole responsibility for determining what age a child should get a smartphone (79%) vs. government (3%) or even a collaboration between parents/government/industry (13%).  At least for now, parents seem supportive of schools having a policy restricting usage of smartphones during school (71%).  My daughter’s middle school has a strict off and away policy and despite kids trying to get around it with smartwatches and ear buds, they continue to keep it fairly locked down.  As the second largest school district in the country just approved the ban of cell phones in schools, I wonder how many more school districts will follow suit. 

For now, I will rely on open conversations with my daughter about expectations on phone usage (86% of parents also agree to doing so), what is happening in her virtual world, continue to engage her in social behaviors IRL, and pray I can figure out a way to walk back my youngest’s expectation that she will also receive a phone on her 11th birthday… 


Erica Parker

Managing Director

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