A report released by Common Sense Media on Tuesday found that by age 11, 53% of kids in the US have their own smartphone. And 69% do by the time they’re 12. This surge in phone ownership and the increased screen time associated with it comes amid growing concerns from experts and people like me that phones are bad for kids.
I’ve traveled the country over the last few years talking to parents and teachers about kids and social media. I’ve heard stories about everything from non-consensually shared nudes in their schools to smartphone addiction – kids can’t seem to put their phones down, which teachers say is disrupting class time and causing innumerable fights and misunderstandings. Everybody wants to know: “What do we do?” They’re all for limiting screen time – though it’s hard, they say; their kids act like addicts when you try to take away their drugs – but when you raise the question of not giving kids phones at all, they balk. “How can we do that?” parents ask. “Our kids will have no social life. They won’t be able to function in the modern world.”
Leaving this received wisdom aside for the moment, let’s look at all the other things kids won’t be able to do if they don’t have a phone. They won’t be able to be part of a group chat, the site of hours of distracting discussions which arguably would be better had in person, where face-to-face interaction would elevate the quality of the conversation and deepen social bonds. They won’t be able to send or receive nudes, which has increasingly become their first introduction to the world of sex. The exchange of nudes at a young age (I’ve reported it happening as young as the sixth grade) is thankfully no longer being normalized as just a “new kind of flirting” any more, now that it has become clear that it often takes place in an atmosphere of pressure or coercion – not to mention the real danger of nudes turning into revenge porn, the source of ruined lives.
Phones enable kids to surf the internet unmonitored; most I’ve spoken to know of ways to get around the parental apps watching over their devices. And frankly, many parents are too distracted themselves or too trusting of the presumed innocence of social media to even check what their kids are doing online. I remember the dad in St Louis who argued: “My [14-year-old] son does not watch porn.” I hear that a lot. He later emailed to tell me that, when he actually checked his son’s phone, he saw that he was watching porn several times a day. Whatever your view of the effects of porn on children (studies say it can cause an increased tolerance for sexual violence in both girls and boys), we have agreed as a society, by our laws, that they should not watch it; and yet with phones, they can watch it whenever, wherever. I’ve heard from girls about how common it is to see “boys watching porn in school”.
Explicit content doesn’t have to be porn. It’s readily available on YouTube and across all social media platforms. A kid with a phone will inevitably see something his or her parents would be appalled to know he or she has seen. “Consumer groups caution that despite promises to police inappropriate content, YouTube continues to show violent imagery, drug references, racist language and sexually suggestive content that reaches children,” reported the Washington Post. The Common Sense Media survey reported that twice as many kids are watching mostly YouTube videos every day as they did four years ago, and the average time spent watching videos has about doubled, to an hour each day. And yes, often these are just videos of their favorite pop stars or clips from their favorite TV shows; but sometimes they are videos of the most horrible things imaginable.
This type of exposure is not without its emotional effects; nor is the constant pressure that comes with a phone to broadcast one’s life – one’s inauthentically perfect, happy, glorious life. This pressure is particularly toxic for girls, who in study after study in recent years are seen to be struggling with rising rates of anxiety and depression and even suicide connected to the use of phones and social media.
But sure, go ahead and buy your 11-year-old a phone.
What could possibly go wrong?
- Nancy Jo Sales is a writer at Vanity Fair and the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers