A decade later, I still wonder if I was wrong to give my daughters smartphones



I still think about the dilemma I faced as a parent over whether to give my children smartphones, even a decade ago.

When they were in junior school, my daughters craved these magical devices. They said they would be social outcasts without phones because “everyone else had them”. Even the other adults seem to be on their side. Some parents insist that phones are a “safety” device, allowing troubled children to call for help. The tipping point came when a lawyer I knew said it was good for kids like me, whose parents separated, to have a phone to stay in touch with the absent parent. In the end, I put my fears aside and gave up.

I often wonder if I’ve made a mistake, and this week I discovered a new reason to worry. A group called Sapien Labs, which studies mental health, polled nearly 28,000 18-24 year olds. Part of Gen Z, Sapien describes this group as “the first generation to go through puberty with this technology”. Not surprisingly, this research shows that the mental state of Gen Z is worse than previous generations. As psychologist Jean Twenge says in Generations, teenage mental health has worsened dramatically over the past decade, the era after smartphones became mainstream. Covid-19 has made the problem worse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most interestingly, however, Sapien tracked the age when respondents first got cell phones and compared it to their reported mental health. It showed a clear pattern: children who received phones at a younger age had worse mental health, even after adjusting for reported incidents of childhood trauma. The share of women experiencing mental health challenges ranged from 74 percent for those who received their first smartphone at age six to 46 percent who received it at age 18. For men, the numbers were 42 percent and 36 percent.

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The pattern is particularly clear in one of six mental health categories, known as the “social self”, which tracks how we view ourselves and relate to others. Sapien attributed this pattern not only to increased use of technology but to decreased interactions with others. “Given the statistics of five to eight hours a day spent online during childhood, we estimate that this could replace up to 1,000 to 2,000 hours a year that would otherwise be spent face-to-face social interaction,” they wrote.

This is before we consider the other effects of technology, from the content children see online to cyberbullying and the constant pressure to engage with social media. “A phone itself is not dangerous but a smartphone full of apps becomes a portal to God knows what,” said Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at New York University who has written extensively on these issues. . “When a child has their own smartphone and can use it at will, you have serious problems with sleep deprivation and addiction.”

What are the solutions? The progress on the content comes as tech companies face growing pressure to exercise certain controls. YouTube recently partnered with the National Eating Disorders Association of America to limit harmful content. It also helps that a new generation of social media influencers, such as Linda Sun and Natacha Océane, are promoting body positivity and anti-anorexia messages. But the toxic material remains widespread. And to this day there is little debate about the question I once wrestled with. Should we ban younger children from using smartphones? Or at least suppress devices with internet access?

Some observers may say this is impossible or argue that one of the reasons for the surprising results of the survey is that mental health diagnoses and awareness are higher than ever. Others may like to see controls. Either way, Haidt thinks there’s “a classic collective action problem” that makes it difficult for parents or schools to impose controls or limits on phone use without a “centralized standard”. He thinks, say, schools should ask kids to leave phones in lockers during class, but he knows parents may object because they worry they can’t “reach their child if something happens, like a school shooting”.

There are small signs of hope. In Texas, a “Wait Until 8th” grade movement emerged, with more than 45,000 families signed up. And standards are changing, although as the history of tobacco shows, it took decades even with strong evidence of harm caused by cigarettes.

If you have young children, prepare yourself for the battle ahead. If only some genius entrepreneur would invent a dumb cell phone that would appeal to kids but without the addictive lure of the internet. That would be true tech innovation.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email him at gillian.tett@ft.com

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