Smartphones destroy children – but where are the parents?

Kirsten Fleming


May 15, 2023 | 7:26 p.m.

At Mother’s Day dinner on Sunday, my college-aged niece scolded my mom for constantly misplacing her iPhone.

My mother, who is in her seventh decade, cracked up, “Unlike you, I wasn’t born with a cellphone in my hand, so it’s not an appendage to me.”

It was a good-natured family joke.

But sitting between a Boomer and a Zoomer, I, a young Gen Xer, got to see the full spectrum and development of our smartphone habits.

Generally speaking, millennials and Gen Xers are the ones now raising children. We’re old enough to remember the virtues of our device-free childhoods and to appreciate how technology has made our lives better and worse as adults.

And after seeing both sides, I can’t help but feel that we need a more conservative approach to the lingering debate over when kids should be allowed to use smartphones.

Then this morning, more evidence arrived in my inbox.

A new study from nonprofit research organization Sapien Labs reports that the younger children are when they first receive smartphones or tablets, the worse their mental health is as adults. Unsurprisingly, this connection is more intense in women.

A young girl is fascinated by her mobile phone.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sapien Labs conducts an ongoing survey of global mental health. For its latest report, it asked nearly 29,000 adults aged 18 to 24 at what age they received their first smartphone or wearable device with internet access.

Then, they cross-checked these responses with answers to detailed questions about respondents’ current mental health.

The later a person receives a device, the better their current mental health.

Girls who received one under the age of 10 were particularly affected later in life – with mental health scores indicating they are currently “treated or at risk of having a serious mental health problem”.

A new study examines the mental health of young adults and when they got their first smartphone.

That’s a pretty compelling endorsement for parents who have been keen on giving their young offspring a portable window to the world.

According to Common Sense Media, the majority of children have a phone by age 11, and in 2021, about one in five children between the ages of 8 and 12 were on social media. At age 14, smartphone ownership reached 91%.

Even at my “I watched the OJ verdict in high school” age, I saw how the smartphone shortened my attention span, exasperated my insomnia, and gave me irrational FOMO.

How is a child without a fully developed prefrontal cortex supposed to handle all online stimuli?

Especially impressionable girls, for whom the smartphone is essentially a portal to a hellish landscape of unrealistic beauty standards, face filters, photoshopped bodies and bizarre gender ideology, to name a few landmines.

Raising children in today’s world is a treadmill set to full throttle where most likely both parents work full time. Youth sports and other extracurricular activities have made such demands on the time, wallet, and patience of adults that in the pursuit of mental health, something gives.

A teenager is buried in his smartphone.
photo alliance via Getty Images

Usually it’s those well-meaning rules — like that promise not to give your child a smartphone until they turn 14. It’s easy to give in when kids complain about being the only one without a phone in their peer group. In addition, parents want to be able to reach their children in the event of an emergency.

I have no children of my own. But I am very active in the lives of my friends’ children. I am involved and present at games, at home and on vacation. I ask a lot of questions of both my friends and their children, and I see patterns emerging in behavior and parenting styles.

More than anything, I see the effectiveness of guardrails such as parental controls limiting what kids can watch and when. And I see the power of saying “no”.

Setting a later threshold and sticking to it not only helps children deal with disappointment and rejection, but also helps them learn about the concept of delayed gratification – virtually non-existent in our on-demand society where every comfort of creature is available via an app on your phone.

Moreover, children are unable to grasp the responsibility that comes with unfettered access to smartphones.

And as parents, teachers, and authority figures, we would be abdicating our own responsibilities if we freely handed this loaded gun to unprepared children.

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