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Adolescence

13 May Be Too Late to Learn Good Online Habits

There's no right age to introduce technology. So, let's start even earlier.

Key points

  • Age is not a very good criterion to use for establishing a family smartphone policy. Every child has unique needs.
  • Kids can have their own smartphones at any age. But they should not be allowed free, unmonitored Internet use until they're ready.
  • Many grownups fail to provide adequate guidance because they mistakenly believe that a personal device is also a private device.

Every time people ask me what’s the right age to give a child a smartphone, I struggle to answer without being obnoxious. I’ve been writing and talking about kids and screens for a very long time. At this point, some questions just irk me.

Recently, I gave an interview to the Spanish newspaper El País, whose editors decided to run it with the clickbait headline: "Hay que darle un móvil a un niño antes de los 13 años [You have to give a child a mobile phone before the age of 13]." Most of the time, screen time–related clickbait goes in the other direction—stoking moral panic about teen girls and body image, online predators, brain damage, addiction, or suicidal responses to cyberbullying—so, I took guilty pleasure in both the headline and the media spectacle it provoked. But, to be clear, I never said anything about anyone being required to do anything before the age of 13.

I did, however, explain that the onset of puberty—a time when reckless and rebellious attitudes are developmentally appropriate—seems to me like a counterintuitive time to hand a kid a smartphone, particularly if you’re worried about social media, conformity, and self-confidence. Status-seeking behaviors, body image concerns, and difficult identity struggles all tend to be a part of the adolescent social experience with or without a smartphone. Therefore, it may make sense to introduce kids to connected devices when they’re much younger—to teach good habits before hormones and social pressures complicate parents’ capacity to scaffold guidance, to model self-regulation, and to set comfortable boundaries.

 Andi Graf, CC0/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Andi Graf, CC0/Wikimedia Commons

Age Not the Best Criterion

However, age is not a very good criterion to use for establishing a family smartphone policy. Movements like Wait Until 8th (a pledge parents take to not introduce smartphones to kids until eighth grade) seem, at best, arbitrary. At worst, they represent leftover Victorian paranoia, unconsciously displacing outdated, mistaken attitudes around sex and temptation to digital technologies. Every child has unique needs. And since there’s no dependable research establishing a causal link between smartphone exposure and toxic or developmentally hazardous effects, there’s also no good argument for allowing access at 13, rather than any other age. It's just more heavy baggage convoluting parents’ thinking about what’s best for their specific children.

Unfortunately, most people presume that giving a child a smartphone is the same as giving them unmonitored access to online content. In a survey conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 39 percent of parents said it was too time-consuming to monitor their 7- to 12-year-old children online; 35 percent said, “their child was taught in school about safe use of social media apps.” Those numbers shock me. Of course, I don’t want to add additional pressure or guilt to the parenting experience. I’m currently raising two teenagers and two more step-teenagers, so I’m well aware, not only of the struggle but also of how few handrails society provides for families to grab. Still, parents need to understand that age is irrelevant, but preparation and education are important.

More Supervision and Guidance Needed

Bottom line: Kids with digital devices need much more supervision and guidance than they’re currently receiving. Consider that when you give your child a bicycle, you don’t let them ride it alone. Most online sources (which are admittedly trying to sell something, and not taking socioeconomic diversity into account) agree that 3 to 5 years old is the average age at which children are introduced to cycling. But we all assume that balance bikes or training wheels are the way to start. We take it for granted that grownups will help children develop the requisite skills before letting kids ride free. When it comes to smartphones, however, grownups tend to hand the devices over to their 10-year-olds (44.9 percent of kids in the United States receive their first phone between 9 and 12 years old) without nearly enough preparation. That’s a mistake.

Kids can have their own smartphones at any age. But they should not be allowed free, unmonitored Internet use until they understand the potential dangers. Unfortunately, many grownups fail to provide adequate guidance. It may be because they mistakenly believe that a personal device is also a private device. It’s not. The so-called metaverse is just a giant surveillance data-mine where A/B tests masquerade as fun games and silly videos. That’s why I’m constantly shocked when grownups tell me they don’t read their kids’ text messages or "friend" them on social media. Parents talk nonsense about “respecting kids’ privacy.” But, by now, we should all understand that online privacy is an oxymoron; if Google and Apple have access to children’s text messages, parents should, too.

In the same way we teach our children not to talk to strangers before we let them go anywhere alone, we need to hold their hands and supervise them as they begin their digital lives. Children should not have unfettered access to a smartphone unless parents feel that their kids are ready to confront the potential dangers associated with a connected life, which requires more mentoring and less censoring. Why not start early? Age has nothing to do with it.

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