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Giving Kids Smartphones Early Hurts Them

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By Reed Anfinson ​​​​​​​Publisher

“When parents are asked to identify their top fears about the safety of their children, what do you think tops the list?” Jon Haidt and Zach Rausch ask in a recent article. “According to a survey last year by, it’s not cars, strangers, or any other physical threat; it’s ‘internet/social media.’”

Haidt is an American social psychologist, author, and professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University. Rausch is Haidt’s research assistant and a researcher at the Center for Humane Technology.

What Haidt and Rausch found is that since smartphones with their addictive social applications became available in the 2010s, there has been a steep decline in children’s mental, especially among girls. TikTok is now the most addictive, damaging, and popular of the apps.

Now they have more evidence to back up their research into smartphones and the decline in child mental health. 

Sapien Labs, a non-profit research foundation, has the “goal of understanding how the rapidly changing social and technological environment is changing human brains and minds” and its impact on mental health.

It found a direct link between the age at which a child gets his or her first smartphone and the depth of the mental health problems they develop as young adults.

Sapien Labs found that kids who got their “first smartphone before they were 10 years old are doing worse, on average, than those who didn’t get one until they were in their teens. The most mentally healthy respondents are those who did not get a phone until their late teens.”

Sapien Labs developed a Mental Health Quotient score for kids based on 47 elements it saw as foundational to well-being. They condensed these elements into these six basic assessments of youth mental health:

Mood & Outlook: Includes optimism, calmness, anxiety, mood swings, sadness, and anger. 

Social Self: Includes self-worth, relationships with others, empathy, cooperation, aggression toward others. 

Adaptability & Resilience: includes adaptability to change, ability to learn, and emotional resilience.  

Drive & Motivation: Includes motivation, curiosity, enthusiasm, and addictions.

Cognition: Includes memory, decision-making and risk-taking, focus, and concentration, unwanted thoughts, hallucinations.

Mind-Body Connection: Includes sleep quality, energy level, appetite, and physical health issues. 

“There is increasing evidence that smartphones have a variety of detrimental effects on child development, including reductions of sleep, focus, and time with friends in person, along with increases in addictive behaviors,” Haidt and Rausch write. They found the negative mental health impacts of smartphone  gets worse the earlier and longer there are used.

Haidt and Rausch say the Sapien Labs findings are grounds for motivating parents, educators, and legislatures to protect America’s youth’s mental health.

 They say the most relevant questions are: 

1) At what age do you want to give a child continuous access to the internet and social media, even when away from home, even when sitting in class? 

2) At what age do you want to give social media companies and other companies continuous access to a child’s attention? 

And 3) does a child really need a smartphone when other kinds of phones (such as “flip phones” or Light Phones) work just as well for general communication (phone calls and texting)?

They recognize there is significant pressure on parents from their children to get them a smartphone. Their children tell them “everyone” else their age has one. They say they are essential for contacting them if there are problems. They are needed to call for a ride. To delay handing over a smartphone, parents need support from their schools, other parents, and laws passed by state legislatures and Congress.

One parent group that seeks to help is called Wait Until 8th. It asks parents to pledge to not to give their child a smartphone until 8th grade. To help them, their pledge isn’t “enforced” until at least 10 other parents sign it. Their children then have classmates who also don’t have phones, and parents have support from one another.

Fed up with the distraction, bullying, and confrontations between students caused by smartphones schools are taking charge.

“We basically said, ‘This has got to stop,’” Dayton, Ohio, Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli told The Washington Post. “We’ve got academic issues that will not be fixed … if our students continue to sit on their phones.”

Schools use policies from telling kids not to use them in class and relying on their self-discipline to implementing penalties for their use in school to taking them away for the school day.

One principal in a school district where phones had been taken away told the Post: “Now…she sees children talk to each other at lunch, rather than text or scroll. If a parent needs to reach a student during school hours, school staff promptly relay messages.”

A Colorado principal told the Post he sees “more interaction between teachers and students, more focus, less conflict in hallways. The majority of our students, when we surveyed them, were thankful for it because it has reduced the stress in their life.”

U.S. law says the minimum age at which a child can sign agreements with internet companies to give away their data is 13. The law is easily bypassed since there is no requirement for age confirmation. New legislation proposed in Congress would “set a minimum age of 13 to use social media apps and require parental consent for 13 through 17-year-olds. It requires rigorous age verification on the part of social media companies. 

A child’s experience with isolation starts early these days. It is all too common to see someone pushing a stroller with one hand while the other holds a phone and their attention. We saw a person pushing a child on swing with one hand while her eyes were captured by the screen on her phone. What happens at home with these children as parents feed them while gazing at their phones.

Neglecting what is important and meaningful in life are classic signs of addiction. Children learn by example. The behavior of their parents is often mirrored in their lives.

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