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Christa Santangelo Ph.D.
Christa Santangelo Ph.D.

Is Your Tween Ready for a Smartphone?

Measure his/her individual traits and consider the research.

Why did Bill Gates wait until his daughter was 14 to give her a smartphone? Maybe he intuited what some research now shows: a 2017 study of over half a million eighth through 12th graders found that teens who spent considerable time on screens (two or more hours a day) compared to teens who spent time on non-screen activity, had depressive symptoms. In the same period, the suicide rate for girls in that age group increased by 65 percent. Of course, there are many good reasons to engage in the wonders of technology. However, the downside of substantial screen engagement is also significant research suggests.

Source: londoneye/iStock

Diehard digital enthusiasts point out that most studies are correlational, meaning we cannot conclude that social media use causes depression or suicide. Yet there is also data which suggests a causal connection between social media use in teens and mental health challenges. The most recent, out of the University of Pennsylvania, supports a causal link between platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, and reduced well-being, suggesting that limiting use to 30 minutes a day helped symptoms of loneliness and depression.

To gauge if your tween is ready for a smartphone, I have created an emotional and behavioral measure—the SMRQ (Social Media Resilience Quotient) that healthy teens and families reliably demonstrate when successfully navigating social media. SMRQ has three main parts: your teens’ sense of self, the bond between you and your teen, and their emotional constitution and intelligence.

First, assess the security and stability of your teens’ sense of self. A solid sense of self is essential for teens to navigate social media because many of these platforms are driven by algorithms that drive emotions like fear. Signs that your teen is getting the hang of having a strong sense of self: decision-making that resists groupthink, the capacity to maintain self-esteem in stressful social situations (think cyberbullying which many teens experience to some degree) and interests that can help them weather the storm of social rejection.

As Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, “Personhood requires encapsulation. You have to find a way to be yourself before you can share yourself. “ Sharing nude photos, a felony in some states, has replaced sneaking out of the house, as the latest teen adventure.

Know the health of the parent-teen bond. A good connection with your teen will allow conversations like the risks of making friends with people he doesn’t know, the perils of cyberbullying, and the menaces of behavioral advertising that manipulate choices through algorithms and intermittent reinforcement. As Yuval Noah Harari urges in Homo Deus, “today, having power means knowing what to ignore.”

Third, evaluate your tweens’ emotional constitution and their EQ (Emotional Intelligence). If your tween is prone to depression, anxiety, impulsivity or extreme attention seeking—maybe the advantages of a smartphone might be lost on them. In these cases, social media can use our tween, rather than our tween using social media.

Consider how well your tween can resist the social pressures of their digitally amped up friends. Finally, take a look at your teen’s Emotional Intelligence (EQ) before racing out to buy their new best friend. EQ, now touted as an important feature in our child’s future success, is the capacity to have awareness and control of emotions and to express them successfully in relationships. Social media mediates your child’s emotions by a system that no one really understands and encourages becoming part of the giant machine of data flow over consolidating one’s own experiences. Engagement with most platforms doesn’t cultivate reasoned responses and empathic connections —the stuff of EQ.

So the next time your tween starts to harass you for that smartphone, pause to consider their Social Media Resilience Quotient. Like cars, smartphones are powerful. But you wouldn’t let your 11-year-old drive. Ask yourself if they can resist “mob rule”, if your relationship with them will allow for meaningful conversation, and whether they can navigate the waters of extreme emotion and behavioral manipulation.

In healing bonds, my life’s work, I have found that what people care about, above all else, is the quality of the connection they have to those they love. Even in the age of Data Religion (Harari), the fraying of these precious bonds is at the heart of most suffering. So let’s be aware of how we support these connections for our children and what strains them. It’s really what matters most.


"Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time." Association for Psychological Science - Sage Journals

"Does Social Media Cause Depression?" Child Mind Institute

"Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults." NCBI

"No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression." Guilford Press
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About the Author
Christa Santangelo Ph.D.

Christa Santangelo, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of California at San Francisco.

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