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The Truth About Kids and Phones

Advice from a Parenting Pro

My 11-year-old is starting middle school and many of his friends have smartphones. I have heard some schools have policies about keeping phones out of the classroom, but I’m not sure about ours. Should we get him the phone? Are there rules for phone use for students at school?

It is imperative to come up with some rules for phone use at school and beyond. But first, it’s important to address the decision on when to give an adolescent that first phone. While acknowledging that there is social pressure to have a smartphone, and that young teens whose parents choose to opt out of allowing them to have one may feel left out, it is also important to recognize the challenges that come with our children having tiny handheld computers at their constant disposal.

For one, smartphones are addictive. I say this without an ounce of hypocrisy knowing full well of my own addiction as an adult. I think of how much attention is taken away from projects and family time by zoning in on my phone. As a middle school teacher, I was well aware of how many of the students I taught had a tough time separating from their devices. We did not permit phones to be turned on during school hours. However, there were plenty of reports from parents and the students themselves about how sleep and other activities suffered because of after-hours phone usage. 

Wait Until Eighth, a national organization that advocates for families to wait until eighth grade before allowing their children to use smartphones, makes a good point on their website: Smartphones are like slot machines in your children’s pocket, constantly persuading them to crave more. The tech industry intentionally designs smartphone apps and social media for people to use for long periods of time because this is how they make their money.” This group further advises parents about how children’s brains are changing, their focus and ability to socialize are shifting, and the risks for anxiety and depression are increasing due to excessive smartphone use.

If safety and communications are your primary reasons for your child to have a phone, there are options that are a little less high tech – like a flip phone or data messaging watch. If you decide to go with a smartphone, there may be benefits to allowing kids to use the phone at dedicated times with specific parameters around length of screen time and restrictions on apps and websites. Learning delayed gratification and accountability is important at every age.

As far as whether you should set up some restrictions before children head to school with a phone, I recommend it. First, do check in with the school administration about their policy regarding cell phones and other devices. It is important to adhere to those and make sure your kids know the rules and abide by them. If there are no restrictions in place, create your own. The clearest parameter would be to make sure the phone is turned off and put away once they walk into the school building, and turned back on once they exit. I might start with giving your children the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to show this responsibility first, while you as a parent use an app to monitor usage. These types of apps also allow for you to remotely restrict cell phone usage should it become necessary.

Again, Wait Until Eighth is clear on why restricting a child’s smartphone use in school is a good idea. They reference research on how smartphones are an academic distraction: “Elementary and middle school years establish the foundation for your child’s academic success. Children learn how to productively manage time, projects, and homework. Introducing a constant distraction with a smartphone is paving a path for academic mediocrity.” 

The early results of a landmark study launched in 2019 on brain development by the National Institutes of Health show children who spend more than two hours a day looking at a screen received lower scores on thinking and language tests. Research from the University of Texas suggests the mere presence of a smartphone reduces cognitive capacity and test-taking brain power. One study demonstrated that using smartphones in classrooms can even lower a student’s grade. Another study found that children who attend schools with smartphone bans performed better on tests.

Whatever your decision on when to allow your children to have their first phone or guidelines and restrictions you establish, be informed. I highly recommend checking out waituntil8th.org for additional resources and information.

Lucretia Marie Anderson (they/them) is a mother of two, founder of Joyful Muse Coaching, a former middle school teacher, and a certified life and mindfulness coach who specializes in conscious parenting and anti-racist coaching. They are also the associate director of FreeHorse Arts, an integrative arts organization for young adults and adults of diverse abilities.
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