I’m pretty unpopular at my house right now.

According to my 10-year-old daughter, I’m “the worst.”

You see, she wants a smartphone. But as a public health professional, I worry that a smartphone may affect her growth and development.

I worry about this, because smartphones have affected mine.

Ever looked at your own screen time report and been flabbergasted at how much time you spend on your phone — free time that you apparently had, but didn’t spend in a rejuvenating way?

Have you ever told yourself, “Don’t check your texts — there’s nothing urgent in there,” only to sneak a look a few minutes later because you have this twinge that you are missing something?

Ever idly clicked on Instagram while you newborn naps on you, then deleted the app in horror after you realize an hour and a half has gone by and you have apparently watched over 180 reels of other people’s babies instead of watching your own? I have. (Back when I had Instagram.)

When in doubt, check in with your pediatrician.

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Sure, my husband and I have tried modeling positive behaviors for our daughter. I don’t use my smartphone until she and her younger sister leave for school in the mornings, and I try not to use it in the afternoons after school unless we are putting on a song to enjoy together. I often leave my phone at home during weekend outings so I can be more present. I have deleted my social media accounts. If I have to break these rules for some reason, I announce what I am doing, so she knows I’m not just pointlessly scrolling.

But it’s hard!

I look at the growing body of research about how smartphones may impact our social and emotional lives, our focus and mental clarity, and our happiness and I wonder: if I can’t always responsibly manage a phone — even when I want to — how do I expect my 10-year-old to do it?

After all, she’s still developing self-management and social and emotional skills — and I want to help her develop these abilities, not impede them.

To test my own assumptions and help parents who may be on the fence about giving their tween a smartphone, I consulted two Novant Health clinicians to ask about the risks and benefits. What I learned surprised me.

1. My daughter is wrong: “everyone” doesn’t have one. But they are used everywhere.

Jaren Doby
Jaren Doby

The latest Common Sense Census: Media Use in Teens and Tweens report says that 4 in 10 10-year-olds have their own smartphone. So she’s not in the minority!

But Jaren Doby, a social worker at Novant Health Psychiatric Associates - Huntersville pointed out that even if “everyone” her age doesn’t have a smartphone, using them is still incredibly common.

One of the main developmental “tasks” for tweens is to learn societal norms. They are wired to pay attention to others’ behaviors. So when my daughter sees other on smartphones, it’s natural for her to want to use them, too. Understanding this can help me empathize with why she wants a phone and talk with her about it in a non-judgmental way.

2. There are some good reasons to use smartphones — but there are also risks.

Smartphones can help tweens keep in touch with friends and family, get help with homework, and find and connect with others with similar interests or characteristics.

But giving your child a smartphone is giving them access to the entire world. Doby pointed out that tweens using smartphones can access disturbing or sexualized content, connect with others who may have bad intentions, and inadvertently share their personal information or location.

“We are talking about real dangers,” Doby said. “These are conversations we need to have with our children instead of presuming they know ‘stranger danger.’” Doby said that “age does not equal maturity,” and that tweens don’t understand all of the risks they are taking when they use a smartphone.

Tweens also frequently hide their phone behaviors, Doby said and as technology changes, it's hard for parents to stay on top of risks.

At my house, we have already had a few incidents of sneaky technology behavior with a school-issued computer. Thankfully, so far, these incidents have been more “watching Taylor Swift videos instead of doing homework” than “telling a stranger where we live.” But I’m not sure why I’d want to create more opportunities for trouble when it’s not essential for her to have a phone yet.

Some families give their tweens smartphones for safety reasons. With our current family schedule, we are always with our daughters or aware of where she is and when to pick her up, so for our particular family, giving our tween a smartphone would probably add risk instead of improve safety.

3. Once tweens get a smartphone, they often stop other activities that are more beneficial to their growth and development.

Most tweens are already getting too much screen time, even before they get a smartphone, Novant Health Child & Adolescent Medical Group - Wesley Chapel pediatrician Thomas Pittman said.

When using a smartphone, tweens are usually sedentary for a long period of time, “and they’re at a phase where their bodies really need that movement,” Pittman said. Smartphone time “means they’re not exercising or seeing people in-person, and both of these things are really important for developing minds.”

Additionally, most of Pittman’s patients with phones use them before bed or in bed, which impacts sleep. “As a result, they're moodier, it’s harder for them to focus, and there are studies that show they do worse in school,” Pittman said.

I love my daughter, but let me just say — I’ll gladly eliminate ANY extra source of moodiness. Tween parents, you feel me.

It’s not just me

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is making the rounds talking about his new book, “Anxious Generation,” in which he urges parents, schools, tech companies, and lawmakers to act on the growing data I discussed in my article. Here are four actions he said would improve kids’ mental health, if implemented nationwide:

  1. No smartphones before high school. (Flip phones are fine, he said.)
  2. No social media before age 16.
  3. Make schools phone-free. Many schools ban phone use in class, but kids still use phones in between classes. Haidt believes kids deserve six hours to focus on their education and build relationships with peers. He suggests schools could either ban smartphones outright from campus, or have students lock them up for the day when they enter campus.
  4. Give children more free play, independence, and responsibility in the “real world.” We’re still on our “smartphone-free journey” at our house, much to my now-11-year old’s dismay (and occasional counter efforts). Come join us and let’s be uncool parents together!

4. We don’t fully understand how smartphones impact tween brains.

There isn’t much long-term data yet on how smartphones affect the developing tween brain. However, what we see so far isn’t promising.

“There are studies that show that children who use smartphones a lot are less likely to be able to focus on specific tasks, do tasks and remember things,” Pittman said. “The correlation is enough for us to say we need to use this very carefully.”

What they do on their smartphones is another concern. In May 2023, the surgeon general issued an Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health which said, “Nearly every teenager in America uses social media, and yet we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them. Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades long experiment.”

The advisory noted that social media can be helpful for certain groups of tweens and teens —such as racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, who may use it to connect with peers and develop more confidence in their identity.

But the advisory also said social media use is linked with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, body image issues and other mental health concerns — findings which “raise serious concerns about the risk of harm from social media exposure for children and adolescents who are at a more vulnerable stage of brain development.”

When I sent a group text to my mom friends asking what they thought about this report, no one had read it. I get it! Being a parent is already physically and emotionally demanding—it’s hard to keep track of every new danger.

But after these conversations, I’m feeling more affirmed in our decision not to give my tween a smartphone. For us, the risks outweigh the benefits right now. Our current thought is that we probably will not give her a smartphone until she is driving and needs the maps feature — although we may give her a flip phone sooner than that so she can keep up with friends.

I’m OK being “the worst” sometimes.

Sarah Bonnema is a mom of three, an instructor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, and a Novant Health patient.

Smartphone for your tween? 3 questions to ask

When deciding whether or not to get your tween a smartphone, Pittman recommends parents ask these three questions:

1. Why does your child want a phone, and what do you think they’ll use it for?
If the answer is ‘they’ll play games all day, and they don’t go anywhere,’ that’s not a good reason to get a phone,” Novant Health Child & Adolescent Medical Group - Wesley Chapel pediatrician Thomas Pittman said said. “But if they have friends they want to coordinate with, that could be a valuable use of the phone.”

2. Can your child regulate their own behavior and listen to you when you tell them to do certain things?
“If the answer to that question is ‘no,’ because kids are so drawn to using phones frequently, you may find yourself fighting with that child a lot when you want them to do other things,” Pittman said.

3. What will your limits be?
Pittman recommends the following guidelines:

  • Never use smartphones in bed.
  • Turn off smartphones an hour before bedtime.
  • Continue seeing friends and family in person.
  • Have both creative and active hobbies that take precedence over phone use.

You can also take the PhoneReady Questionnaire to explore if your child is ready. (Note: Site is from the American Academy of Pediatrics but the site is sponsored by AT&T.)

If you decide not to get your tween a phone yet, Jaren Doby, a social worker at Novant Health Psychiatric Associates - Huntersville provided this script to help you communicate:

“I can see that you’re upset about not having a cellphone. I hear you and I see you. This is our plan for now. Understand that our decision is because (fill in your family’s reasons.) We think the plan will change when ____(name the milestone, age, or behavior changes that need to occur before the child will get a smartphone).”

When your child seems ready, reengage this way:

“Here is what I am considering (explain changes). But here are the boundaries surrounding it and the consequences that will be in place if boundaries are not followed.”