The tricky timing of a child's first smartphone

Eight, 11 or 13? Why scientists can't find an "right age" to give kids smartphones

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published June 7, 2023 11:59AM (EDT)

Little girl holding smartphone (Getty Images/Marizza)
Little girl holding smartphone (Getty Images/Marizza)

In May, a tweet from writer Adam Grant, a psychologist at Wharton and the author of "Give and Take," made its round in online parenting circles.

"The earlier kids get smartphones, the worse their mental health as adults," Grant said on Twitter. "Smartphones should wait until high school."

Grant linked to a newsletter discussing the Sapien Labs study that found links between mental health variations and the age a person first got their first smartphone. His recommendation to wait until high school still proved controversial, however, because, as many parents know, that is a long time to wait. Peer pressure is often put on kids at an early age and there's often a need for parents to be in contact with their kids. 

 In 2022, the Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens survey estimated that about three in 10 of all 8 and 9-year-olds have their own smartphones. The survey also noted that over the last six years, the number of tweens and teens with their own digital devices has increased over the past six years. According to Pew Research, 73% of parents in the U.S. think it is acceptable for children above the age of 12 years to own a smartphone. By age 16, kids in the U.S. are allowed to drive. By 18, they can vote, and by 21, drink alcohol. So is there a "safe" or "right" age for a smartphone, too?

"I think it's very dangerous to say, 'oh, this age is the right age,'" Dr. Don Grant, a media psychologist and National Advisor of Healthy Device Management for Newport Healthcare, told Salon. "It doesn't have what we call in science, external validity, because if you compare one, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 or 15-year-old to another, they're all very different."

Don likened it to picking the right "toy" for a child when they're developmentally ready, taking into account a child's maturation development, stage sensitivity, emotional health, mental health and their peer group.

Linda Charmaraman, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab, agreed.

"There's no well-established, evidence-based age, which it's safe for everybody."

"There's no well-established, evidence-based age, which it's safe for everybody," Charmaraman said, adding that there are campaigns like Wait Until 8th, suggesting to set age limits. "It depends on the individual and the kind of family that they come from and what kind of media use is already happening in the household."

Charmaraman added that it's not the smartphone itself that can be harmful, but more how it's being used — and that includes social media use.

"It's really about what are the reasons for getting a phone and is it displacing anything else that's more healthy for them?" Charmaraman said. "It could be just another mini computer, but for other people, the exposure to certain things on their phone could really be detrimental to some of the other things that we're trying to help promote, like doing well in school and being responsive, being responsible kids, having real life social interactions with human beings, and do it really depends on the kid."

Last month, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory raising the alarm on the effects social media is having on youth mental health. "There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents," he wrote in a 19-page advisory that also called on tech companies to enforce minimum age limits and to create default settings for children. It's estimated that 95 percent of youth between 13 and 17 are using a social media platform, as are 40 percent of children between 8 and 12 years old. In the advisory, Murthy raised concern about how research shows that the period between ages 10 and 19 is a critical time for brain development, when risk-taking behaviors peak, and it's also a time when self-worth and identity are forming. But the advisory noted that more research is needed to better understand the impact of social media on young people and using it from a young age.

Don said one reason why it's difficult to definitively have an answer to when it's "safe" for kids to have their own smartphones, and better understanding of the effects of social media, is because the generation that needs to be studied is still growing up.

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"They are virtual canaries in the digital coal mines," Don said. "But multiple studies have linked addictive relationships with mobile devices, mental health problems in teens and it's disrupted sleep for sure, kids need sleep and now these kids are using their phones like baby monitors for new parents where they're always vigilant, they're always right there."

"They are virtual canaries in the digital coal mines."

Indeed, sleep helps the brain improve attention, memory, and analytical thinking, but research shows that teens aren't getting enough sleep and electronic devices are believed to be a reason why.

In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers found an association between social media use and life satisfaction. In the study, researchers found "distinct developmental windows of sensitivity to social media in adolescence, when higher estimated social media use predicts a decrease in life satisfaction ratings one year later." Specifically, that window occurred between 13 and 15 for males, and 11 to 13 for females. A second window for both sexes was identified at 19 years old.

Charmaraman said she's not surprised to see a variation in age and effects based on sex.

"Girls are getting their periods earlier and developing at much faster rates and they're more aware of their bodies and comparing their bodies with other individuals, so that awareness happens earlier," Charmaraman said.

While the mental health impact of smartphones being introduced at a young age is a major concern, there is conflicting research as it relates to age and smartphone introduction. According to a Danish study of 11 to 15 year olds, there was some evidence to suggest that phones given to children allowed them more mobility as it increased their parents' sense of security. There is also evidence that teens are starting to exchange their "smartphones" for "dumb phones."

Still, Don said that parents should approach giving children smartphones as if they are "giving them access to the internet."

"If you're going to allow your kid to have the internet, you need to be very aware of what you're allowing," Don said, emphasizing that it's hard for parents to know what their kids will actually be doing on the internet. Don said it's like if a kid asked to go to a party, but didn't know who was going to be there, in an abandoned coal mine. "I don't think any parent would say 'excellent, have a good time.'"


By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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