The Cell Phone Dilemma

"When Can I Have a Phone?" 

In my cohort of parents, we have not yet reached the age of giving our children cell phones, but we are getting closer. In my role as psychologist, I am keenly aware of problems caused by too much cell phone use and the potential for family conflict. As a Mom, I want to keep cell phones out of the hands of my children as long as possible, because there's this inevitability of a point of no return once we cross that bridge. (I know I would never give up MY phone.) It seems a scary headline pops up pretty regularly about how cell phones and their technology are destroying us all, and there are days it feels that way too. So I decided to dive into what we know about kids and cell phones, and what resources we can find to help make it all a little less terrifying.

The Dilemma

My 8-year-old daughter has been asking us for a cell phone since she was five. Obviously, the answer “no” has been easy, but the harder question to answer is “when?”

The cell phone has to be the modern parenting dream and nightmare wired into one sleek, handheld device. Since I have adapted to navigating the world with a cell phone, I do wish I could easily text my daughter to run out to the car from gymnastics, instead of lugging my other two children from the van just to walk a few feet to grab her. The convenience factor is real.

The nightmare part, though, means SO many decisions and risks: What kind of phone? What should the phone be allowed to have on it? How do we make sure creepy old men don’t find a pre-teen user? What rules do we have around using the cell phone and how many arguments will ensue?

In my work with teens, I have witnessed the light and the darkness of cell phones. Cell phones allow for important social connection for children needing developmentally normal independence from their parents. Technology has the potential to open up communities and worlds that may not be available in someone’s physical neighborhood, giving a young person social support necessary for emotional well-being.

Once we have decided when to give our child their first cell phone, the how becomes our burden and responsibility as the parent.

We are probably all more astutely aware of the dark side, though: cyberbullying, depression, anxiety, obsession, isolation/withdrawal from the family in favor of the phone, social media platforms nefariously designed to create addictive behavior for the financial benefit of shareholders. I now ask in my initial intakes with families how much time a preteen or teenager spends on technology; I have often heard 8-10 hours a day on Snapchat or YouTube videos and it scares me for the health of that teenager and for our larger community.

This could be its own book (there are many), so in the spirit of a concise blog post, I’m going to distill down to what we know about the effects of cell phone use in young people, and resources to help us all. The biggest caveat is I have not yet gone through this with my own children, so as my first step, I reached out to a parenting group with people from all over the country (and even other parts of the world) to hear from those who have.

What Parents Think

All the dire warnings and my own observations of teens swallowed up into their phone screens, disconnected from the outside world, have inspired me to forbid the phone forever.  So I was surprised by what I heard from parents who have already arrived at the cell phone milestone. A majority described a stepwise approach to introducing a phone, often initiated by safety and logistics in the middle school years, and only a minority expressed regret or significant concerns. Almost all who responded referred to ways they highly monitor use, especially of younger kids, with success.

Many parents described starting with a flip phone, or other communication device like a watch, that does not offer the wide-ranging internet access of a smart phone. It seems this serves as a good testing ground for both parent and child to become used to communicating like this, and to experiment with the responsibility factor. It can allow the child a way to show they can handle this, and the parents to realize they are also comfortable with this advance. 

What Experts Know and Don't Know

I searched academic databases for good scientific studies about effects of cell phone use on children and teenagers, and realized how hard it is to find a truly relevant study because by the time a study has been completed, written, and published, the technology and fads have moved on. Academia moves too slowly for technology, and articles even a few years old now sound obsolete (eg, an AAP article published in 2011 referred to MySpace), and any statistics are also likely shifting. I skimmed multiple scientific abstracts and online articles to discover this basic conclusion: we need to do more research.

"The Rainbow House:" Kids On Cell Phones

"The Rainbow House:" Kids On Cell Phones

In terms of mental health concerns, the evidence we do have suggests that there can be POSITIVE effects; for example, one study found teens’ texting was associated with lower depression and anxiety. It makes sense that when teens feel more connected to their friends and being social, this helps their mood overall. It appears that the main risk to mental health problems is actually pre-existing depression, anxiety, or behavior issues. Cell phones may exacerbate what is already present, but they do not appear to CAUSE these problems generally across the population.

Perhaps the clearest evidence about negative effects of cell phones is how they disrupt sleep by suppressing the brain’s natural sleep chemical, melatonin. We know poor sleep is a risk for multiple problems, especially if chronic. This underlies the American Academy of Pediatric’s clear recommendation to not allow screen time the hour before bed, and recommendations across sources to keep cell phones charging overnight in a central area of the home instead of the bedroom. Even a phone in the bedroom has been associated with fewer hours of sleep in children. (I have personally seen and been dismayed by text threads from all hours of the night that keep these teens awake and stressed out.)

How Do We Decide What To Do?

Besides the clear recommendation for cell phones and sleep, how do we make decisions based on what we know? As with much of parenting, we have our instincts to make up for what science can’t give us. With the wide range of ways to use cell phones, the larger complexity of social media enabled by phones but also available on other devices, and the importance of subcultures that differ substantially (eg, schools, neighborhoods), it’s wise to take a step back from headlines about how cell phones are destroying our youth, and use our common sense to simply look at our own children.

One of the most helpful resources I discovered, Raising Digital Natives, offers tips for parents grounded in a balanced perspective of risks and benefits of cell phones. This psychologist, Devorah Heitner, outlines specific ways to think about a child’s readiness for a cell phone, including YOUR OWN readiness as the parent, as well as a child’s demonstration of good judgment, rather than a chronological age. As the experts on our kids, we know their vulnerabilities and strengths, and can tailor our cell phone policy to these in order to promote benefits and minimize risks.

Once we have decided when to give our child their first cell phone, the how becomes our burden and responsibility as the parent. This is where the foundation of communication, trust, and respect that we have worked to establish in their younger years hopefully pays off.

We bear the responsibility to educate our children about internet safety, to be clear with our children about the boundaries of how and when they use their cell phones, and exactly what they can expect from our supervision of their use (“yes, I will have your passwords and spot check text messages”). Experts and parents across sources recommend this parental monitoring as a way to help the child build responsible technology habits, AND prevent the worst-case scenarios (eg, pornography access, “sexting”).

We will not be giving our 8-year-old a cell phone. But when we think she is ready, I’m not as terrified as I was. The parents before us have paved the way (thank you!) and it can actually be an opportunity to support and mentor our children to get the good parts from technology, while learning responsibility just like in all other aspects of their lives.  Although cell phones feel like an unavoidable modern reality new to the world of parenting, it actually uses much of what we already know in how we teach and set limits, and work to raise our children to be as healthy and happy as possible.

Resources

Fortunately, those of us who haven't started the cell phone phase with our kids can benefit from the wisdom from those who have. Some top resources to help guide us newbies: