Smartphones and Kids, Considerations and Options as You Navigate the Question of "When?"
Smartphones and Kids, Considerations and Options as You Navigate the Question of "When?"

by Darryl Loy and Dr. Julie McLeod

At Good Shepherd Episcopal School, we take educational use of technology very seriously. We believe that computers are among the most amazing tools to impact and transform education in recent history. Our current implementation of Chromebooks in our middle school solidifies our commitment to positioning Good Shepherd on the forefront of technology integration into educational curriculum.

The focus of this article, however, is another device that is often not thought of as a computer...a smartphone. Our phones have transformed over the last few years from phones to computers that can make phone calls.

Should students have smartphones at all? The decision to acquire a "computer" smartphone for a child is a very personal family decision and will vary from family to family. Yes, these devices are engaging, educationally useful, and undoubtedly an ingrained and integral part of the world we find ourselves in today. Yet, there is no hard and fast rule regarding the age at which a child can understand how to properly interact with a smartphone. Just as every child learns at a different pace and in different ways, some may learn how to better manage time and resources at different points in their lives. Are smartphones healthy for young people? When is the "right" time to get your child a smartphone? As with most important decisions, there are experts on both sides of the debate.

The Internet is replete with article upon article suggesting that cell phones are toxic or as addictive as crack cocaine or heroin, or, at best, a "devil's bargain." Other experts express more concern for certain students and suggest the decision to provide your child with a smartphone is more about the child's maturity rather than simply his or her age. Dr. Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist and anxiety expert at the Child Mind Institute says in the article When Should You Get Your Kid a Phone?, "I tell parents that it's not so much about a particular age as it is about a kid's social awareness and understanding of what the technology means. You could have a really immature 15-year-old who's acting out on the phone, but you give it to him because he's 15, whereas a really socially mature 12-year-old could handle it better."

The Child Mind Institute's article linked above provides even more things to consider: How often does your child lose things? How well does he or she handle money? How easily does your child pick up on social cues? How well does your child do with limits to recreational screen time? For children diagnosed with any sort of attention deficit, the constant stimulation available via a smartphone makes the device especially distracting. Additionally, children who are prone to act impulsively may not be ready for a smartphone. We do not truly know the longevity of posts and messages floated into cyberspace but, in all likelihood, anything a student impulsively posts today will potentially live on, something they will likely regret later in life.

Other studies are critical of the methods used and cite evidence that smartphones are not "evil." Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Friedman wrote a piece in the New York Times entitled, The Big Myth About Teenage Anxiety

Relax: The digital age is not wrecking your kid's brain. In his article, Dr. Friedman points out that there is, in fact, a lack of recent clinical research connecting digital device usage and teenage anxiety. More likely, what little there is represents a correlation between the two, not a causation. He goes on to say the introduction of new technology often leads to "medical and moral panic" and points out that no one ever experienced the brain rot our parents told us we'd get from too much TV!

There is no denying that the decision is complex. You, as parents, should not feel pressured one way or another. It is a decision that you must make based on the needs of your family. There are a number of legitimate reasons to equip your child with a smartphone. For example, you may prefer for your child to have a smartphone for safety purposes so you can more easily reach them, and they can reach you in the event of an emergency. You may choose to implement one of the many family tracker apps available for smartphones so you can know the exact location of your child, or at least his or her phone, at any moment. The good news for families is it does not have to be an all or nothing decision. There are many ways to ease your child into a smartphone and/or accomplish your family's needs without a smartphone. Below, we are listing a few examples. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will give you a sense of the types of options that can be available to you as parents as you navigate this decision. For the sake of clarity, and not to demonstrate any bias, we are listing these options from most restrictive to least restrictive:

Wait

It is a viable option to wait to give your child a smartphone. While your child will tell you he or she is the only one without a smartphone, we know this is not true. Ask around to other parents, and you will find others in your grade level who have not provided a smartphone to their child. This can be a difficult position to stand if you feel alone, but you don't have to stand alone! Other parents will be thrilled that you have sought them out!

Watch/Phone with Minimal Functionality

Another option to consider is giving your child a flip phone for emergency purposes, and you can feel safe about not putting the entire Internet at their fingertips. They do still make simple phones that just make and receive phone calls and text messages only. Manufacturers are also making watches with this type of minimal functionality that only make calls to certain phone numbers that you program. In fact, this may serve as an intermediary step that allows your child to grow into a responsible computer user who can learn over time to manage the engaging, powerful, and distracting aspects of these devices.

Smartphone with Limits

If you feel as though you'd like for your child to have a smartphone, but you want to reduce the features and function and, therefore, the potential distractions, take advantage of the rather formidable restrictions the operating systems of these devices make available. Here is an article that can serve as a great starting place, 5 iOS Settings to Limit Your Child's Mobile Usage. Restrictions on the iOS platform can be a very powerful tool to manage what can and can't be done on the device. Do, however, avoid a major headache and remember the restrictions passcode!

Also, we suggest that you set boundaries with respect to smartphone usage. When at home, phones can remain in a common space, out of a child's bedroom. When your child has friends over, keep a basket in that common space in your home and have all guests deposit their devices in the basket before retreating to your child's room or game room, etc. Recommend to the families of your children's friends to do the same when your child is in their home. Or simply tell your child to leave his or her device at home when visiting friends. As Dr. Friedman says in his article, "...I have yet to see an adolescent in the emergency room with smartphone withdrawal — just a sullen teenager who wants his device back."

If you do choose to give your child a smartphone, most experts agree there should be conversations about clear guidelines and rules regarding the use of the device. Several are listed in the article from Child Mind Institute, and we'll list a few here. As we do with our school devices, parents should know all passwords on their child's device. Set limits on both screen time and phone time. Monitor any social media sites used by your child. Predetermine the consequences associated with breaking rules, damaging or losing the device, etc.

Dr. Ryan Smith, a counselor and family therapist who has spoken to our Good Shepherd parent community on a couple of occasions, has a balanced view of technology. He understands its usefulness and also its temptations for young people. He has a great resource on his website called a Family Tech Plan. It's a concise resource for families to discuss and define ways to manage the use of technology in the home.

Finally, do not underestimate the influence you, as a parent, have over your child both directly and indirectly. Certainly take the direct approach and talk with your child about the responsibility that comes along with these digital devices; we do this at Good Shepherd. Additionally, I highly encourage the indirect approach of modeling good digital device etiquette. Children do learn a great deal simply by watching their parents and how they react to things and situations that arise. We have to ask ourselves, as parents, if we want our children to spend less time using their computers and smartphones, should we lead the way by doing the same? Most likely, the answer is yes.