When I present to parents as a speaker on mental health, I get a lot of questions about mobile phones and social media. There is no question that both mobile phones and social media have negatively impacted kids’ mental health.

Evidence from a variety of cross-sectional, longitudinal and empirical studies implicate smartphone and social media use in the increase in mental distress, self-injurious behaviour and suicidality among youth; there is a dose–response relationship, and the effects appear to be greatest among girls.

Abi-Jaoude E, Naylor KT, Pignatiello A. Smartphones, social media use and youth mental health. CMAJ. 2020 Feb 10;192(6):E136-E141. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.190434. PMID: 32041697; PMCID: PMC7012622.

What age should your child get a phone?

Wait as long as you can. I know the pressure is intense on them and you. You can start with a smartwatch that allows for communication with a limited number of contacts that you approve through the company that sends the watch.

You can see smartwatch reviews at this link but I’d recommend one that is for kids. Those are going to have more limitations. Personally, I’m a Garmin smartwatch fan. The last thing I want is a smartwatch I have to charge every day.

The gauge of deciding when to hand over that smartphone?

Answer this–when do you want your child to see porn? And at what age are you OK with them sending naked body parts as over 80-90% of teens have done?

Given those charming facts that are likely to leave a lump in your throat, it’s best to start with a phone that has some guardrails although nothing is perfect.

Don’t depend on the typical smartphone and cell phone service and think that apps will provide that protection. You can’t monitor it as well as you think. There are way too many ways for them to get around that including using your phone as a hotspot to do whatever they please. And they can use hidden apps so easily and they are notoriously difficult to find even for experts who look for them all the time.

Jailbreaks around whatever roadblocks you erect is actually a teenage sport–one in which groups of them enjoy immensely.

Best first smartphone for kids

These phones offer a lot more content protection so if your child gets an alarming message or sends an alarming picture, you are notified and it can be held in moderation until you respond. It can flag you if your kid is sending out messages that could be suicidal so you can intervene. It can block certain sites. You can manage screen time, track location, block websites, and contacts, and monitor 24/7.

The difference is the actual phone service that comes with the phone does a lot of the monitoring for you. It’s the kind of content monitoring you can’t do.

Phones that offer content service as part of the package are below.

I know you are going to say that kids get teased about having these phones. But handing your all-access smartphone poses both a serious physical and emotional threat. From human trafficking to bullying and predators threatening your kids with exposure over naked photos they sent to a stranger posing as a a romantic interest, the stories are telling you to not hand one over. By stating and sticking to your reasons you are letting your child know what is important to you. When they say you are over-policing you can simply agree that you are because you care.

They are not ready for all the internet has to offer.

Dastardly plots we tried to execute in the 1970s that had multiple steps can now be carried out immediately today and with little thought. It was all those steps that prevented many of our escapades from happening. For kids with impulse control issues who have a higher risk for mental health concerns to begin with, the instantaneous aspect of the mobile phone can have especially devastating consequences.

When you do give your child a regular smartphone, establish guidelines

Establishing guidelines is an important step to protecting your child. It’s not a free-for-all and you do this at the beginning. If you’ve already handed over the phone and feeling regret, implementing these guidelines now is still possible but you will get more pushback.

It’s worth it.

Be firm and state that although they don’t agree with your view, the key to having one at all has the rules attached and there is no compromise there. Take it or leave it. Not everything you do as a parent will be popular. And newsflash, parenting is hard. It’s always been hard.

You are the owner of the phone, and therefore there are guidelines to follow to be able to keep the device. Just like you have house rules and car rules.

Guidelines should include not having the phone in their rooms at night

If the phones are in the room, they’ll not get the sleep they need and they can obsessively scroll through social media and go on websites you don’t want them on. I would suggest charging them all in your bathroom with your mobile phone in there, too. Lack of sleep definitely played into my own son’s mental health spiral and we know it’s a key factor to youth mental health today.

While you can’t make anyone sleep, you can remove that which potentially and most often prevents sleep. And yeah, they’ll give you the “but I need to listen to my music” excuse. There are other ways to get music, and there are also other kinds of wake-up alarms.

Modeling restraint yourself is important and making sure there are times when mobile phones are not allowed at the dinner table and no texting while driving.

Know that these phones are addictive and the younger they are the more susceptible they are

Try taking a phone away from a teenager who has had no boundaries and you’ll get a fit-to-be-tied full out tantrum that can also be seen as withdrawal. Because their brains are still developing, their risk of addiction to these devices is higher. Guidelines help temper that possibility.

One family’s guidelines

One family established early on that the mobile phones go in a basket by the door right when the person walks in. That’s everyone in the family. So if it rings, they have to go fetch it like we did in the old days when it was attached to a wall.

This family continues to do this to this day and it’s part of their process from the get-go because everyone, including parents, have always done it so the kids have accepted it because they grew up with it and now it’s just the way they do things.

Resources

Want to keep up with topics around social media, cell phones, and kids? See the resources below.

  • Parenting in a Tech World a group of 400k parents on Facebook
  • Officer Dave Gomez on YouTube or Instagram
  • Katie Greer is a long-term expert on internet safety and is most active on Facebook
  • And of course, if it has to do with youth mental health, I’m on it and will tell you all about it.