Jun 19, 2023

3 Questions to Consider About When to Give Your Kid a Phone (Or For Whom the Phone Pulls)

3 Questions to Consider About When to Give Your Kid a Phone (Or For Whom the Phone Pulls)

Earlier this week, NPR interviewed me for a story about smartphones and kids’ brains. When I spoke to the journalist a few weeks ago, our 15-minute interview turned into an hour-long conversation. Clearly, I have a lot of thoughts about this. :)

As it usually goes with press interviews, my opinions were condensed into one 30-second sound bite. But it was a good one. I was feeling especially passionate about what I wanted to convey to parents about smartphones and dopamine:

“I talk to hundreds of parents: not one has ever said to me, ‘I wish I gave my kid a phone sooner or social media at a younger age.’ Ne-ver.”

You have to listen to the audio version to hear it (the print one is slightly different), but it made me think about one of the questions I get asked the most: “So when should I get my kid a phone?”

The short answer is: “When you’re ready for them to see porn.”

The longer answer is: “It really depends, but the longer you can wait, the better.” (See: dopamine.)

But waiting on giving access to smart devices and social media is easier said than done. I have increasingly less patience for people who tell parents, “Just say no” but don’t understand that these products are designed (by psychologists hired by tech companies!) to be intentionally manipulative, and this is especially problematic for children and their underdeveloped brains.

However, I also can’t let parents off the hook here either. Yes, this is hard. Yes, this feels like a losing battle. Yes, your kid will probably feel like “the only one without it” if you say no. But that doesn’t mean you should say “Yes.”

I hear from teachers a lot about how much they wish they could ban phones in schools (and I wholeheartedly support this, as does one of my favorite writers and thinkers on this topic, Jon Haidt). But part of the school problem is that parents insist on letting their kids have phones during the school day.

This definitely complicates things. (As does the screen-based tech required for school, but that’s another essay.) 

Over and over again, parents have 3 main reasons they feel the need to give their child a smart device:

  1. Convenience: I understand that being able to directly text or call your kid during the school day makes your life easier. But it is actually extremely disruptive to your child, your child’s class, and your child’s teacher. Schools have front offices with receptionists and phones. This is not a reason to give young children smart devices. I would ask parents to consider this: For whose convenience are we making this decision? Ours, or our children’s?

  2. Anxiety: I understand– families have been through a lot these past few years with COVID and remote learning and climate change and political stress. We’re seeing rising rates of anxiety and depression, especially among teens. But while our intentions in giving kids devices to soothe anxiety are good (we want to help our kids, after all), what anxious kids really need are opportunities to build skills that will help them cope with their anxiety. Giving them access to social media and smartphones does the opposite. If we take away opportunities to practice coping skills, these anxious kids grow up to be anxious adults. And I would ask parents again: Whose anxiety are we addressing when we provide devices to children?


  3. School shootings: This is a tough one. I hate that this is a far-too-common occurrence in the United States. It is deeply upsetting that parents today worry about this and our children feel traumatized by regular lockdown and active shooter drills. And it is also a uniquely American experience to justify giving our kids smart devices at younger ages so they can text us in the worst-case scenario of a school shooting. I say this with love and compassion and empathy: our kids are not safer in active shooter situations by having devices. And while school shootings immediately make the headlines, they are still statistically rare compared to “regular” gun violence (suicides alone make up half of gun-related deaths in the U.S.). Instead, our fears about school shootings blind us to the true dangers that lurk in the devices, apps, and platforms our kids interact with constantly: the predators in Roblox, the cyberbullying in social media, the porn in Spotify (yes, porn in Spotify). Couple that with the dopamine that hijacks their attention and these dangers are far more serious, but we don’t fear them the same way we fear school shootings. Shifting this focus means honestly assessing our own anxieties. So again, I ask you, parents: Whose fears are we allaying when we give our kids smart devices?

So what can parents do?

  1. Face Your Fears: Start with identifying your own anxieties and determining what is scary versus what is actually dangerous. This is one of the main things I work on with parents in 1:1 consulting. Sign up for a call here to learn more.

  2. Be That Parent: Yep. The one who delays smart devices and social media. The one whose kid is mad at them. It’s okay. They’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. 

  3. Baby Steps: Do not go and change everything at once. It won’t work. Your kids will rebel. Start very, very small. Even better– start with a small change that you can make in your use of technology and see what happens. I have a bunch of Tech-Intentional Tips videos on YouTube (yes, I see the irony) that might be helpful. 

This is hard stuff, parents. I feel you. Truly. It’s a lot of work to frontload the screentime struggles, and the older our kids get, the more challenging it can be. But I still think even small efforts make big ripples. We’re not going to get it all right, and that’s okay. But I think we can do a little better by our kids (and ourselves). 

Sending you courage and confidence!

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.