Smartphones Have Made Parenting Harder Than Ever

CC BY 2.0. Keith Cooper

Giving a kid a phone "feels a little like trying to teach your kid how to use cocaine, but in a balanced way."

If I was ever tempted to give my children iPhones before they leave home, an article in the Wall Street Journal has quashed that urge forever. In "Parents' Dilemma: When to Give Children Smartphones," writer Betsy Morris examines the incredibly complex tug-of-war game that modern parents are being forced to play with tech and media corporations, "a fight as lopsided as it sounds."

The allure of phones and social media apps is irresistible to young people. This technology offers immediate connection to peers and platforms from which to present an idealized version of one's life. These devices are fun, entertaining, and 'cool.'

But smartphones and the apps on them have downsides that are increasingly worrisome to psychologists, teachers, doctors, and parents. Children and teens (and many adults, for that matter) find it next to impossible to control their phone usage, because these devices are designed to be highly addictive. As Morris wrote:

"The goal of Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Snap Inc. and their peers is to create or host captivating experiences that keep users glued to their screens, whether for Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat or Facebook. A child can understand the business model: The more screen time, the more revenue."

And these companies are succeeding. The average U.S. teen (age 13-18) spends nine hours a day glued to a screen, outside of school hours.

All that time online means time taken away from other activities. One parent reported their kid stopped playing guitar because watching guitar videos on YouTube was more entertaining and immediately gratifying. Sleep is commonly compromised when young teens have phones in their rooms at night, with one example given of a boy staying up till 3 a.m. to play video games.

There is a rampant culture of cyberbullying that is deeply disturbing and appears to be tied to rising suicide rates:

"About 16% of the nation’s high-school students were bullied online in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children who are cyberbullied are three times more likely to contemplate suicide, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics in 2014."

Often parents have no idea what's going on. Young girls are particularly susceptible to depression brought on by comparing themselves to online images of models and celebrities, as depicted in a TIME story about a 16-year-old's unexpected suicide attempt. Even parents who are tech-savvy might not know about their kid's "Finsta" account, a fake Instagram account, that is created in addition to the one monitored by parents.

Most tragic of all is the way in which family relationships are being fragmented by the presence of devices. With phones constantly at hand, it destroys conversation and one's ability to enjoy a situation without wondering how best to portray it online. It distracts from interacting with people who are present; one might wonder who has texted them in the meantime. It creates tension between parents and children about the rules of use.

Kristin Braun is a mother from Austin, Texas, who optimistically bought iPhones for her girls at ages 5 and 7. Morris wrote:

"Ms. Braun planned to teach her daughters to use their iPhones gradually, with a short contact list and a few apps. 'I was like, "Oh yeah. We've got this. It's fine,"' she said. 'Well, it’s not fine.'"

While my heart aches for the parents who are in the midst of dealing with a child's phone addiction, I can't help but feel relieved that my children are younger, still in early grade school. It means we were spared being part of the original cohort of early tech adopters and the steep learning curve that went with it. (We're almost entirely screen-free at home, with no TV or iPads, and two password-protected smartphones that our kids are not allowed to touch.)

Their young age has given me and my husband the advantage of time and distance, and slowly-accumulating new research, to see how well it's gone (it hasn't) and whether we want that for our family (we don't). By the time my kids are in middle and high school, I'm hoping there's a real movement pushing back against phone use, with more parents opting out of letting their kids have phones and understanding why this is worthwhile.

One parent put it rather poetically to Morris, saying that giving a kid a phone "feels a little like trying to teach your kid how to use cocaine, but in a balanced way." Sometimes it's just easier to say no.