The truth about children and smartphones

Aug 16, 2017 | children online, families, internet addiction

The issue of children and smartphones raised its head this week with an emotive headline in US magazine Atlantic ‘Have smartphones destroyed a generation?’ The timing hit the school summer holiday season, a time when children are probably spending more time on their screens than ever.

Children and smartphones

Aware of the seasonal dangers, the Children’s Commissioner warned earlier in the month about letting children ‘binge’ on social media in the holidays by launching the ‘Digital 5 A Day‘ campaign. The campaign is designed to get parents and children thinking about what a healthy digital diet looks like. What constitutes healthy in screen consumption appears to be the opposite of the junk digital food so many of our children are ingesting.

Healthy digital diet for children on smartphones

Built-in addictiveness

In the talks I do to parents of school-age children I’ve found the fear of looking like a neo Luddite makes many parents nervous about even broaching the subject of screen time. But I’ve worked in the digital industry for 22 years and even I am accused of being ‘anti tech’ and ‘scaremongering’ when I say how really concerned I am about the issue.

What I say to the parents I meet is that we must not forget that this is a billion dollar industry battling for children’s attention. In designing the software and hardware that our children carry around in their pockets, this industry is using the most manipulative neuroscience-based tricks to get them hooked. Software designers call it making apps ‘sticky’, doctors working in the field call it making them ‘addictive’. Snapchat streaks are a perfect example of this – as anyone who has spent any time at all with a teenager knows well.

Too much time on smartphones makes children unhappy

So we really can’t blame our children that they find it difficult to put down their screens. But the evidence is right there for us to see of what happens when they fail to do so. When teenagers spend too much time on screen their mental health suffers. Study after study has shown this to be true. Excess screen time is also strongly linked to negative mental health outcomes in adults. But children with their developing brains, just beginning to learn social skills, are the most vulnerable. The survey that the Atlantic piece is based on comes to this stark conclusion:

If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence [based on this survey], it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen

A strong evidence-based argument that “this is just the way 21st century children live their lives” really doesn’t cut it any more in talking about managing screens. If we are serious about children’s health we must be serious about intervening in their screen time.

What can parents and schools do?

I have two pieces of advice for parents. I don’t believe any child under 13 should be given a smartphone, and any time on tablets or other screens should be strictly limited. And I don’t believe any child under 16 or 17 is capable of regulating their own screen time. So that means parents must intervene to set limits and boundaries and remove screens at the appropriate times.

In schools, I’m pleased to see more and more schools banning or restricting the use of smartphones on the school grounds, ensuring they are only used for a safety device when travelling during the school day. I encourage schools who haven’t introduced this policy to consider it.

Until, and if, software and hardware designers have some form of regulation imposed on them around the apps children are using, restricting time spent on devices both at home and in schools is the only option available to those who are concerned about children’s mental health.