When I was a kid, the most advanced device I could put in my pocket was a Gameboy. It didn’t do much other than play games. And while I did sometimes annoy my friends and family by playing it too much or taking it everywhere, having one really wasn’t too controversial. Once I was in middle school, I didn’t have too many restrictions, other than simply needing money for games and batteries.
Today, smartphones are much more powerful than a Gameboy by several orders a magnitude. It’s not just about what they can do. Even with a poor internet connection, a smartphone can give anyone of any age access to countless forms of information, media, and entertainment.
Some of it is good. A lot of it is bad.
Some of it is critical information for most people to know. A lot of it is misinformation or propaganda that can destroy someone’s life.
In the wrong hands of even a capable adult, a smartphone can ruin your life. Just ask anyone who has ever sent out an ill-advised tweet. Things only get more complicated when it comes to young children or teenagers using smart devices. And those complications are going to intensify in the coming years.
I know this and sense this because over the past several years, quite a few friends and family members have started having kids. At the moment, they’re all under the age of eight. They’re all growing up with loving, caring parents who genuinely want what’s best for them. They have all the support and encouragement they could need from their family and extended family. I try my best to be part of that support.
However, these kids have been born into a world that I never could’ve imagined as a child. They came into a world in which the internet is everywhere, smartphones are everywhere, and social media has a huge effect on everyone’s life, even if they’re not on it. The world is always changing, but this is a different kind of change.
And these kids definitely sense it too. A while back, I was hanging out with one of my nephews during a family gathering at my parents’ house. While we were hanging out in the living room, my mother brought out an old photo album. And my nephew, even with severely restricted exposure to screens and smart devices, kept trying to tap on the pictures to make them play. He basically thought they were like the photos on his dad’s iPhone, which played videos when you tapped on them.
It was funny to some extent, but it was also revealing. It shows that, even at a young age, these kids are picking up on what these devices can do. And as they get older, they’re certain to become a big part of their lives.
Their parents certainly understand that. Even before they were born, I heard them say outright that they’re going to work hard to restrict the use and exposure of smart devices to their children. That included phones and tablets, including those that didn’t connect to the internet. They’re serious about that effort. On more than one occasion, they’ve asked me to keep my phone in my pocket so that the kids don’t see it. I always try to respect that. I understand completely where they’re coming from.
That’s not to say they hide these devices from them completely. Their parents do allow their kids to play very specific kid-friendly games on their devices, but usually for a very limited amount of time and often as a reward for good behavior. They’ll also let them watch movies on a tablet if they’re good or if they’re on a long drive. The key is to find a healthy balance that doesn’t expose the kids to the objectively toxic parts of the internet and electronic media.
For now, I think what they’re parents are doing is working. However, at some point, they won’t be able to completely control their child’s access to technology, the internet, etc. I know this because when I was a kid, we found a way to access forbidden media, be it games like Mortal Kombat or shows like South Park. It doesn’t matter how strict a parent is. Kids will find a way. Even if they fail, they’re already aware that these devices exist and they’re aware of what they can do. The question is how do we, as parents and a society, manage it appropriately?
This is something I honestly don’t know how to assess. I am not a parent yet. I might be one day and even then, I might not know when and how to appropriately expose my children to smartphones and the internet. I don’t doubt they’ll be curious. I also don’t doubt these devices will be part of their lives. As they get older, they’ll want more access. At some point, they’ll even want a smart device of their own.
For parents of young kids, that’s a scary prospect. I’m not a parent yet and I find that scary, too. I’ve seen some of the uglier parts of the internet. I shudder to think of the impact they would have on any child. But scary or not, it raises a relevant question.
At what age do we let kids have their own smartphone?
I ask this question knowing that the answer will likely vary from child to child. There will always be some children who are more responsible than others. When I was in grade school, I knew a kid who couldn’t be trusted with paintbrushes because he kept trying to paint things on other kids’ faces. I even knew this one kid who couldn’t be trusted with markers because he would sniff or try to lick the tip.
Those are not the kinds of kids you can trust with a smartphone or any device connected to the internet, for that matter. But even well-behaved kids might be harmed by smartphones at a certain age and through no fault of their own. There are applications, games, and sites that are specifically designed to get everyone, kids included, addicted to their content. There are multiple studies that have noted detrimental effects to kids and young adults who use apps like TikTok, Instagram, and FaceBook.
At the same time, there are tangible benefits that can be gained from smartphones. There are also programs that can help kids learn other languages, improve critical thinking skills, and even develop forms of emotional intelligence. Depriving kids and even teenagers access to such functions could be just as detrimental.
It’s a tough balancing act. You can never completely eliminate the drawbacks and gain only the benefits, nor can you truly know how a child or teenager is going to use their smart device. Some will use it to better themselves. Some will be ruined or destroyed by it. There’s just no way to know for sure.
The best any parent can do is to just teach their child to be smart, responsible, understanding, and careful. That’s not easy. Very few things about parenting are. I’ve noticed that from just watching my siblings and friends. I’m sure I’ll learn it first-hand if I ever have kids of my own.
Like it or not, smartphones are a critical tool for kids, teenagers, and adults alike. Like any tool, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use it. And like any action or choice, there are risks and rewards to weight. We can never know for sure how they’ll help or hurt us. Parents can and should do whatever they can to help their kids get the most out of these tools, even if it means restricting their use.
To help hammer this point home, I’ll share one last anecdote. When I was in school, all cell phones were banned. At the time, they didn’t connect to the internet or have cameras. But the school had a clear policy that no student could posses them. Then, there was an incident near my neighborhood that involved an active shooter. It made the local news and, as a result, parents of students began frantically calling students on the cell phones they weren’t allowed to have.
Some students managed to hide their phones enough in order to answer. But those who didn’t ended up causing serious concern from their parents. I remember several basically leaving work in the middle of the day to get to the school in order to check on their kid. Nobody was hurt, but I can’t imagine how stressful that must have been.
As a result of this incident, the school changed its cell phone policy. That might have made sense in wake of that incident. And I know there are far issues to consider with modern smartphones. But I think it helps illustrate how crude, simplistic approaches to this issue can only go so far. We can’t ban these devices, nor can we uncreate them or the world they’ve fostered. It’s up to us to guide the next generation as best we can into an increasingly complicated world.