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At What Age Should Kids Get Smartphones?

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Smartphones are remarkable; through them we communicate in various ways, access the web, listen to music, watch videos, and use any number of specialized apps. But there is growing concern that the use of smartphones — especially social media via smartphones — by older children may not be good for developing brains and could be a cause of a sharp increase in pre-teen and teenage mental health issues over the last 10 or 15 years.

For parents, this leads to the challenging question of what is the appropriate age at which to give children smartphones, if at all, especially when children notoriously report: “everyone else has one.” Many parents like the ability to track and be in touch with their children, making some happy to give their children smartphones at an early age, although there are simpler devices that allow communication without access to social media and the web.

Smartphones at Age 10

An informal survey of a few Montpelier parents found they have given or plan to give their children smartphones at ages anywhere from age 10 to 16. All agree their children point to other kids with smartphones as a reason the child needs one, suggesting that some community agreement regarding the proper age to get a smartphone would be helpful.

Currently, Montpelier Main Street Middle School school counselor Jenna Bravakis estimates that only some fifth graders have smartphones, about half of sixth graders have them and the majority of seventh and eighth graders have phones. 

“At the high school, almost all the students have smartphones,” she said.

The subject of smartphones and youths has received considerable national attention in the last year. In September, an advisory by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office noted an increasing “reason to be concerned about the risk of harm social media use poses to children and adolescents.” 

According to the report, children and adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of poor mental health, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

“This is deeply concerning as a recent survey of teenagers showed that, on average, they spend 3.5 hours a day on social media,” the advisory said.

The book “The Anxious Generation” by Jonathan Haidt (Penguin Press, March 26, 2024), a professor at N.Y.U, has also drawn national attention to issues surrounding youths’ use of smartphones.

Subtitled “How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” Haidt’s book cites many studies showing mental health problems among young people on the rise. It blames smartphones and social media for an international increase in adolescent anxiety and depression between 2010 and 2015, when smartphones and social media, such as Instagram, came into widespread use.

Self-harm among girls tripled from 2010 to 2020, while suicide rates jumped 167%, according the to the book. “No other theory has been able to explain why rates of anxiety and depression surged among adolescents in so many countries at the same time in the same way,” Haidt wrote.

Bravakis says she has seen a “decline in mental health” of Middle School students over the nearly 14 years she has worked at MSMS, but she noted it can be hard to tease out the impact of the pandemic on kids versus that of social media. For many kids, though, smartphones do lead to Snapchat-based conflicts as well as hurt feelings when children see on social media that other friends are getting together and they are not included, she said.

A Tough Parental Decision

Haidt argues that society needs to make major changes regarding smartphones and social media, including delaying the use of smartphones until ninth grade and their access to social media until the age of 16.

The Bridge asked a few Montpelier parents — off the record to protect their privacy and that of their children — what they thought was the right age for smartphones. Opinions and practices varied.

One mother was emphatic that she will wait until her 12-year-old child is 16 before her child can have a smartphone, despite the child’s protestations that other kids already have them. 

“They can go outside and read under a tree like I did,” she said.

Another mother said she gave her kids phones too early. “The day my daughter got her phone at age 10 was the last day she went outside,” she said. “I do require my kids to give me the password to their social media accounts so I can check their activity,” she said.

Another parent waited longer to allow smartphone use, first on a shared phone in eighth grade and then on a phone the child purchased in ninth grade. Because the child paid for and owns the phone, this parent had more difficulty controlling the phone’s usage; at one point the child wiped the phone clean to erase parental controls. The parent places a lot of blame on social media for behavior problems and serious mental health issues that the child has experienced in high school.

“It has been difficult for my kids,” she said. “They are not able to regulate their use of their phones,” recounting how they have snuck phones into their rooms against the parent’s rules and stayed up late on social media, a practice that cuts into the sleep teenagers need.

Not all parents have seen problems with smartphones. One mother gave her daughter a phone at age 13 and used parental controls to limit social media access. She thinks her daughter, now in high school, uses the phone responsibly. “She and her friends have self-imposed time limits — her phone will tell her when she has been on Snapchat for an hour,” she said.

The question of when to allow smartphone use is particularly fraught for parents of children entering or in the early years of middle school, when pressure mounts and where most kids have smartphones by seventh grade. A mother of a fifth-grader said she hopes she can hold off until at least tenth grade. “I don’t see the value added of giving children smartphones,” she said.

This family has settled on a simpler device for their child — a Gizmo watch sold by Verizon — that allows users to call up to 20 phone numbers determined by the parent (this family only made three numbers available). The watch/phone can be set so it only works at certain hours, and has other optional features such as location tracking.

The father of this child, who uses his phone extensively at work and at other times, said that whether kids have smartphones or not, he believes it important for parents to model good phone behavior. 

“I really try to put the phone aside and have fun with the kids when I am home,” he said.

The mother of a fourth grader who will attend MSMS next year hopes to convince her friend’s parents to buy flip phones for middle school instead of smartphones. With flip phones or other simple phones and watches, parents can stay in touch with their kids without giving them access to social media and everything that can be found on the web, from addictive games to pornography. 

“I’d love to see if our MSMS Caregiver’s Alliance or the Caregiver’s Alliance at the elementary school would sponsor a book group about Haidt’s book or a podcast and discussion, this mother said. “It is really hard for parents if they feel their kids are being left out, and it is hard for kids, too.”