Parents have different passions. Some feel strongly about organic foods while others promote gentle parenting. As for me, I’m all-in on the idea that nothing good comes from giving kids cellphones.
My older children each received a basic, prepaid flip phone for emergencies when they began to drive, but I certainly wasn’t going to give them a smartphone. That was reserved for a high school graduation gift. My 14-year-old may lament that he is the only one in his class without a phone but sorry, kiddo. That’s just the way it is.
While I might be in the minority, there are some compelling reasons to nix a cellphone for your kids too. Here are some reasons to think twice about giving a smartphone to a child.
1. It’s bad for mental health
Let’s start with the most significant — and scary — side effect of cellphone use. A review of multiple studies found that smartphones and social media use is linked to an increase in “mental distress, self-injurious behaviour and suicidality among youth,” according to a 2023 report published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Meanwhile, the not-for-profit Sapien Labs reported in 2023 that its global study of nearly 28,000 young adults found those who received a smartphone or tablet later had better well-being. Those who received their phone at a younger age were “more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression towards others and a sense of being detached from reality.”
In both cases, the effect of phones seemed more pronounced on girls than boys. There are many other studies out there that have come to various conclusions, but the overarching theme seems to be that there are more downsides to teen cellphone use than upsides.
2. It can open a Pandora’s box of age-inappropriate content
Before I was firmly on the anti-phone train, we did get each of our older kids an iPod Touch — you remember those, right? Like a smartphone but no phone service? Anyway, it didn’t take long for our children to find themselves in some darker corners of the internet. They quickly lost those devices, but the damage was done. There is no way to unsee or unread something.
That was a while ago, and today’s parental controls are vastly superior. However, they aren’t foolproof. Even if your child isn’t seeking out age-inappropriate content, bad actors and big corporations may be trying to bring it to them.
In 2021, some child safety advocates sounded the alarm about the YouTube Kids autoplay feature which kept children watching an endless stream of videos. Law enforcement officials have also warned of online predators pretending to be teens on social media in order to commit crimes. These include things such as sextortion which involves convincing teens to send explicit photos and then blackmailing them.
3. It makes it hard to provide guidance
Part of being a parent is to provide guidance to help children through the rough patches of life. However, you can’t do that if you don’t know about the rough patches.
Even with the best parental controls, a cellphone can quickly become a child’s personal domain. If your teen is the victim of a sextortion scam, they may be too embarrassed to tell you. A kid who’s being cyberbullied may not want to want to look like a snitch. And when all these interactions are happening on a phone, there may be no way for you to know what is happening.
The same can be said for videos and other online content. If you are watching YouTube together, you have a chance to point out potentially problematic content or themes. A child who is watching alone on their phone, though, is left to absorb whatever message the video creator is sending, no questions asked.
4. It can squash creativity
People talk a lot about smartphones and technology being tools that can enhance our lives. But the reality? They are a giant time suck. Maybe you have mastered the art of using your phone, setting it down and walking away, but personally, I spend far more time scrolling than I care to admit.
It’s the same with kids. Children 10-12 years old watch nearly five hours of screen media daily with that number soaring to almost 7.5 hours for teens, according to a 2019 study from the nonprofit Common Sense. And that does NOT include screen usage at school or for homework.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking kids are using their screens creatively. Common Sense reports only 2% of screen use by tweens and 3% by teens includes creating content. The rest of the time is spent passively consuming it. All that staring at a screen leaves little time for kids to explore and create on their own.
5. It disrupts sleep
If kids are given a cellphone, they shouldn’t keep it in their bedroom. One study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, a journal of the American Medical Association, found:
“…the mere presence of a mobile device in the sleeping environment at bedtime, and certainly its use, increases the risk of inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality, and — most important — excessive daytime sleepiness the next day in children 6 to 19 years old.”
Heavy smartphone use is also associated with chronic sleep deprivation and negative effects on academic performance and socioemotional functioning, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal study.
6. It’s linked to developmental delays
Most people aren’t buying their toddler a cellphone, but they may be handing theirs over to keep little ones occupied at the store, in a restaurant and elsewhere. While screens are an easy distraction — and one I admit to using myself at times — they come at a cost.
A recent study out of Japan and published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that screen time at age 1 was associated with developmental delays in the following areas at age 2:
- Fine motor
- Problem solving
- Personal and social skills
Teens and adults aren’t immune either. A study out of The University of Texas at Austin found that simply having your smartphone nearby reduces cognitive capacity and functioning.
Certainly, parental controls and vigilant monitoring of a child’s cellphone use can minimize or eliminate many of the risks associated with their use. However, in my book, it’s simply easier and safer to never give a kid a phone in the first place.