Smartphones are ruining kids — but where are the parents?


Kirsten Fleming


May 15, 2023 | 7:26 p.m

At Mother’s Day dinner last Sunday, my college-aged niece chastised my mom for constantly misplacing her iPhone.

My mom, who is in her seventh decade, cracked, “Unlike you, I was not born with a cellphone in my hand, so it’s not an appendage for me.”

It’s good-natured family banter.

But sitting between a Boomer and a Zoomer, I, a young Gen Xer, see the full spectrum and evolution of our smartphone habits.

In general, Millennials and younger Generation Xers are now raising children. We’re old enough to remember the virtues of our device-free youth — and to appreciate how technology has improved and worsened our lives as adults.

And having seen both sides, I can’t help but feel that we need a more conservative approach to the long-running debate about when kids should be allowed smartphones.

Then this morning, more evidence for this arrived in my inbox.

A new study from the nonprofit research organization Sapien Labs reports that the younger children are when they are first given smartphones or tablets, the worse their mental health as adults. Unsurprisingly, this connection is stronger in women.

A girl is fascinated by her cellphone.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sapien Labs runs an ongoing mental health survey around the world. For its latest report, it asked nearly 29,000 adults 18 to 24 at what age they received their first smartphone or portable device with internet access.

They then cross-referenced those responses against answers to comprehensive questions about the respondents’ current mental health.

When someone receives a device later, their current mental health is better.

Girls who received one under the age of 10 were particularly negatively affected later in life — with mental health scores indicating they were currently “dealing with, or at risk for, a serious mental health conditions.”

A new study looks at mental health in young adults and when they get their first smartphone.

It’s a pretty compelling endorsement for parents who have taken a long time to give their kids a handheld window on the world.

According to Common Sense Media, most children have a phone by age 11, and in 2021, approximately one in five children between the ages of 8 and 12 will be on social media. At age 14, smartphone ownership reaches 91%.

Even at my “I watched the OJ verdict in high school” age, I saw how the smartphone lost my own attention span, fueled my insomnia and gave me irrational FOMO.

How is a child without a fully developed prefrontal cortex supposed to manage all the online stimuli?

Especially impressionable women, for whom the smartphone is essentially a portal to a hellscape of unrealistic beauty standards, face filters, photoshopped bodies and weird gender ideologies, to name a few landmines.

Raising children in today’s world is a treadmill set at full speed where both parents are likely to be working full time. Youth sports and other extracurriculars have placed so many demands on the time, wallet and patience of adults, that in the pursuit of sanity, someone gives.

A teenager is buried in their smartphone.
image alliance via Getty Images

Often, those rules are well-intentioned — like that promise not to give your child a smartphone before they turn 14. It’s easy to panic when kids complain that they’re the only one in their group without a phone. Also, parents want to be able to reach their children in case of an emergency.

I don’t have my own children. But I am very active in the lives of my friends’ children. I am involved and present in games, at home and on vacations. I ask many questions of both my friends and their children, and I see trends emerging in behavior and parenting styles.

More than anything, I see the effectiveness of guardrails such as parental controls that limit what and when children can watch. And I see the power of saying “no.”

Setting a later limit and sticking to it not only helps kids deal with disappointment and rejection, but also helps introduce them to the concept of delayed gratification— almost nonexistent in our on-demand society where every creature comfort is available through an app on your phone.

Furthermore, children cannot handle the responsibility that comes with unfettered access to smartphones.

And as parents, teachers and authorities, we abdicate our own responsibilities if we freely give children this weapon.

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