Smartphones are nearly ubiquitous among children, with up to 91% of 11-year-olds owning one. But do children miss out if they don’t have a phone, or do they reap unexpected benefits?
It’s a very modern quandary. Should you give your child a smartphone or keep them as far away from them as possible?.
As a parent, you might imagine a smartphone as a Pandora’s box, capable of unleashing all the world’s evils on your child’s wholesome life. The dizzying array of headlines about the potential consequences of children’s phone and social media use is enough to make anyone want to avoid it. Even celebrities, it appears, are not immune to the modern parenting dilemma: Madonna has stated that she regrets giving her older children phones when they were 13, and that she would not do it again.
the other hand, You most likely own a phone that you consider an indispensable tool for daily life, from emails and online shopping to video calls and family photo albums. And, if all of your child’s classmates and friends have phones, won’t they be left out if they don’t have one?
Many questions about the long-term effects of smartphones and social media on children and teenagers remain unanswered, but existing research provides some evidence on their main risks and benefits.
While there is no conclusive evidence that owning a phone or using social media is harmful to children’s well-being in general, this may not be the complete picture. Most research has thus far focused on adolescents rather than younger age groups, and emerging evidence suggests that there may be developmental stages during which children are more vulnerable to negative effects.
Furthermore, experts agree on several key factors to consider when deciding whether your child is ready for a smartphone – and what to do once they have one.
According to data from Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, by the age of 11, the vast majority of children in the UK own a smartphone. ownership increased from 44% at age nine to 91% at age eleven. In the United States, 37% of parents with children aged nine to eleven say their child has their own smartphone. In a 19-country European study, 80% of children aged nine to 16 reported using a smartphone to go online daily or almost daily.
“By the time we get to older teens, over 90% of kids have a phone,” says Candice Odgers, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine in the United States.
While a European report on digital technology use among children aged birth to eight years old discovered that this age group had “limited or no perception of online risks,” solid evidence on the negative effects of smartphone use – and social media apps accessed through them – on older children is lacking.
Odgers examined six meta-analyses, as well as other large-scale studies and daily diary studies, on the relationship between digital technology use and child and adolescent mental health. She discovered no consistent link between adolescent technology use and happiness.
“The vast majority of studies find no link between social media use and mental health,” Odgers says. The effect sizes – both positive and negative – were large in the studies that did find an association. were diminutive. “The most striking finding was a gap between what people believe, including adolescents, and what the evidence actually says,” she says.
The only person who really can judge how social media affects children is often the one closest to them – Amy Orben
Amy Orben, an experimental psychologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, conducted a similar review and found the evidence inconclusive. While there was a small negative correlation across the studies, Orben concluded that it was impossible to know whether the technology was causing the drop in wellbeing or vice versa – or whether other factors were influencing both. She observes that much of the research in this area is of insufficient quality to produce meaningful results.
These are, of course, averages. “There’s an inherent large variation around that impact [on wellbeing] that has been found in the scientific literature,” Orben says, adding that individual teenagers’ experiences will vary depending on their own personal circumstances. “The only people who can truly judge that are often those closest to them,” she adds.
In practise, this means that, regardless of what the larger evidence suggests, there may be children who struggle as a result of using social media or specific apps – and it’s critical for parents to be aware of this and provide support.
On the other hand, for some young people, a phone can become a lifeline – a place to find a new form of access and social networking as a person with a disability, or a place to look for answers to pressing health questions.
“Imagine you’re a teenager who is concerned that puberty is going wrong, or that your sexuality isn’t the same as your friends’, or who is concerned about climate change while the adults around you are bored with it,” says Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and co-author of the book Parenting for a Digital Future.
Children, on the other hand, use their phones to communicate with friends and family the majority of the time. “If you look at who kids are talking to online, there’s a lot of overlap with their offline network,” Odgers says. “I think this whole idea of losing a kid in isolation to the phone – for some kids, that can be a real risk, but for the majority of kids, it’s not.” They’re interacting, sharing, and watching together.”
In fact, while smartphones are frequently blamed for children spending less time outside, a Danish study of 11- to 15-year-olds discovered some evidence that phones actually provide children with independent mobility by increasing parents’ sense of security and assisting them in navigating unfamiliar surroundings. Children said phones improved their outdoor experiences by allowing them to listen to music and communicate with their parents and friends.
Of course, the ability to communicate with peers in near-constant mode is not without risk.
“I think the phone has been a fantastic unleashing of what was always an unmet need among young people,” Livingstone says. “However, for many, it can become coercive, and it can become extremely normative. It can make them believe that there is a place where the popular people are that they are unable to enter or may be excluded from, where everyone is doing the same thing and knows about the latest whatever-it-is.”
In fact, Orben and colleagues discovered “windows of developmental sensitivity” – where social media use is associated with a later period of lower life satisfaction – at specific ages during adolescence in a paper published earlier this year.