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This holiday season (and it seems like every season), smartphones are the most popular piece of technology requested by children aged ten and up. Through a smartphone, children can play games, stay connected virtually 24/7 to friends, use social media, text messages and Facetime, visit YouTube (the most popular website for children) and dozens of other activities. And more than any other technology, smartphones are creating the greatest risks for children because of a variety of issues.

Before you purchase your child’s smartphone of choice, make sure to do the research on how you can introduce this technology with healthy boundaries and in an age-appropriate way. We’ve compiled a list of the greatest risks with smartphones for tweens and teens, as well as resources on how to help deal with them.

Potential risks include:

  1. It is harder for parents to monitor smartphone use, i.e. how much time children are spending on them, as well as what they are doing with them.
  2. There are dozens of smartphone apps that enable anonymous communication, disinhibited communication (a lack of restraint for social norms that one feels when not communicating face-to-face or in-person), and communication between strangers. Many apps are not age-appropriate for children (many are rated 17+/21+) and some apps are inappropriately rated for children (rated 12+) when they shouldn’t be. And of course, a child can install any app regardless of the rating.
  3. Many smartphone apps and the phones themselves are designed to be addictive. “Snapchat Streaks,” for example, are designed to keep participants sending photos to each other every day (building a “streak”) as a reflection of their strong friendship. A Snapchat streak is when you send snaps back and forth with a friend for several consecutive days. Breaking a “streak” is often felt as a betrayal or bad thing to do. And so it isn’t uncommon to find children with 200 – 300 streaks, feeling that they must take/send a snap every day to their friends! Many other apps are designed to trigger dopamine and endorphin release, sometimes to unhealthy levels for children, that give the user a “good feeling.”
  4. Because of their addictive quality and the fact that smartphones are a “personal device” on which we are able to do so much, children/teens with smartphones are also staying up later to remain connected to their social media and/or their sleep is more frequently being interrupted by these devices because they feel the need to check them during the night. (In October 2016, I hosted a workshop to a large group of pediatric doctors and nurses focused on concerns around technology use by children. I asked the group if they had patients in their care whose sleep was being impacted negatively due to the use of smartphones and social media. Nearly all said yes.)
  5. With access to smartphones at younger and younger ages, children are spending less time engaging with the world around them, and more time using smartphones to avoid having difficult face-to-face conversations. This is a growing concern raised by more and more people. Look out for my upcoming blog post with more about this topic.
  6. Some apps mislead children and teens into thinking that what they do through the app is private or will hide their digital activities. Nothing could be further from the truth, including the fact that Snapchat never deleted photos from their servers or a user’s phone, though they said they did. There are also apps that are used to hide photos from parents. They actually hide nothing, because if a smartphone is confiscated and searched by police investigating a crime the photos are easily discovered.  

So when is it developmentally appropriate for children to begin to use smartphones? And what are the best practices for parents to help their children use them in healthy and positive ways?

There is a growing movement of parents who support the idea of waiting until 8th grade before giving their children a smartphone. I strongly support this idea. To learn more about this movement, visit WaitUntil8th.org. Once parents give a child a smartphone, it is imperative that they set boundaries and rules for their child’s use of it. The best way to implement these boundaries is through a contract. We introduced a sample contract in our first blog post in this series. 

One of our most important jobs as parents is to protect our children and keep them safe. This means their socio-emotional well being, developmental health, as well as physical safety. To do this, parents need to constantly monitor their children’s devices and routinely engage in conversations about the use of these powerful technologies. New parental control apps appear each year and it is important to check for quality apps that can help parents monitor and set boundaries. One such app getting attention is Our Pact, which is a simple family locator and parental control app that allows parents to locate family members and limit screen time by blocking internet and app access. Another app getting positive reviews is called Kidslox, which has lots of good features including setting limits on the time a child can use the device.

To be able to monitor our children’s use of these devices, we also need the passcode to get into their phones and the passwords to all their accounts on them. That should be part of every parents’ non-negotiable contract!


Additional Resources

Be aware that there are many smartphone apps that are not appropriate for young teens but are attracting their attention including “Hot or Not” and “Chance.” Smartphone apps that enable anonymous communication, communication between strangers or “rating” other people are very risky. Some apps also allow users to post photos/videos anonymously or identify user location.  (Most are rated either 17+ or 21+.) 

Texting and Recovering Deleted Texts
It is not recommended that children below 7th grade engage in texting. Social drama often begins with texting and group texts amongst younger children are often hurtful. If parents do give permission for their children to text, it is strongly advised that parents routinely check on their child’s texts. You may also choose to tell your child that texts may not be deleted and missing texts may lead to consequences. The articles below detail instructions on how to retrieve deleted texts:

Parental Control Software to Monitor Texting

Note: There is a great deal of misinformation being circulated online about an app called “Blue Whale.”  Presumably, the app encourages children to hurt themselves in ever-increasing ways, resulting in an attempted suicide on day 50. This self-hurt app, downloaded by many children in Europe and Russia, has been largely debunked as myth.  Read this article from ForEveryMom.com to learn more about this app and what are the real concerns regarding teen suicide and this app.

Perhaps one of the best articles to summarize concerns focused on smartphones and addiction is this article published in The Daily Beast in January 2018. In February 2018, Vox posted an excellent 5-minute video, which contains several excellent suggestions to help us lower our addiction to smartphones based on psychology and research.  Another worthwhile article was posted in August 2017 on NPR. There is a growing body of evidence now showing that smartphones have a cumulative negative impact on a generation of children. Read Professor Jean Twenge’s article Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? in The Atlantic Magazine.

In the next blog, we will share our top 12 tips for creating a healthy relationship with social media.

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