According to Stanford Universty study of 250 kids released in late 2022, the average age for a child receiving a cellphone is between 10.7 and 12.6. And, Common Sense Media reports that the average age when a kid starts friend -connecting on social media is 12.6. We asked four local parents with kids in this age range why (and how?) they are bucking these trends.
My 11-year-old currently does not have digital media or a device and does constantly ask for a phone because of the peer pressure of his classmates who all have devices and/or smartwatches.
We are holding that line [until high school, age 14 or 15] because social media has direct negative impacts on emotional and mental health, including increased suicidal ideation. I do believe it has been isolating for my son [not to have access] because he feels embarrassed for not having a device like his friends and classmates and he doesn’t understand why.
I think social media impacts self-image and confidence. Constantly comparing yourself to others’ ideal selves can result in depression in all forms, especially if you don’t yet have the ability to recognize boundaries, emotional cues, or the difference between when things are serious and not so serious. Developing a filter to navigate the internet and all its content takes growing up and experience.
I will say, his school-administered laptops have access to YouTube, which has been a vortex of sometimes inappropriate content and time. For his ADHD brain, YouTube is addictive. And how do we even know at this point how much YouTube is costing us as parents? I think it’s an iceberg, and there is so much underneath we can’t see yet.
It’s such an interesting culture we live in, where we have all this technology to help us communicate and connect. And yet we have dissolved behind the veil of chat, pings, email, likes, and so on. Where is the value of face-to-face conversation? Here lies the impact: because of the lack of face-to-face and voice-to-voice, we lose our authenticity and ability to connect.
If I could, I would not give my kids access to smartphones until high school or maybe even college. I think kids play for longer, spend more time outdoors, and engage in more creative activities when they fill their time with more tactile, experiential activities. Half the activities I did as a teen, like playing guitar or drawing in my sketchbook, I did because I was bored.
I have four kids, ages 16, 14, 12, and 10. None of them had access to most social media until recently. My middle schooler does not have a smartphone and I have no immediate plans to get her one. But, with my oldest kids, I caved by 7th grade. I saw the negative impact it was having on them not to be able to communicate with their peers in the most socially acceptable way: Smartphones. My oldest, 16, just started using Instagram, and my oldest two have had limited access to Pinterest since about 8th grade.
My partner and I have told both of our older kids that we would support them if they wanted Instagram or TikTok, but have also warned them about the research indicating how negatively social media impacts teen girls’ mental health. They both made the choice not to start using those platforms until recently and I know we are lucky we had their buy-in.
At the end of the day, I am extremely concerned about our young people and the impact of social media on their mental and emotional well-being. I think knowing that many of the designers of these programs limit or ban access to them for their own kids is telling. However, I don’t think one medium can be blamed for all of society’s problems — social media just highlights many of the broader issues we need to address as a culture: misogyny, racism, the climate crisis, and so on. I don’t believe our kids are sad because of pretty pictures on Instagram, they’re sad because of the very big, very scary problems in our world. Problems that are magnified by social media but not caused by it.
I think teens today “case the joint” by looking at other teens’ social accounts and determining whether they might get to know each other better based on what they see. I understand this. When we first moved to this area, I did something similar to meet new people.
Unfortunately, the way someone comes across on social media is not necessarily the same as who they are. Regardless, I think our teens understand on an intuitive level that how they present on these platforms determines a lot about their social lives, for better or for worse. For teens and tweens like my kids, with limited social media participation, I think they feel the impact of that on their potential social relationships in “real” life.
My hunch is that most kids are smarter than we give them credit for. They know something is missing from online-only interactions but they also know so much is riding on how they present themselves in those spaces. I also think they’re savvy enough to understand the potential. For instance, young people have done groundbreaking work to improve access to social situations for neurodivergent and disabled kids. So, it’s not all bad.
I just think we as a society are going to have to put social media in its rightful place and downgrade its importance in shaping our social lives. I’m hopeful we’ll get there without losing some of the awesome ways technology has broadened our ability to connect across our varying needs.
One of my kids struggles to make friends and I do wonder if that’s because she’s not on “the market” online. She wonders about that, too, and views it as a space where her friends have had the benefit of experimenting with their identities in a less personal way. I can see that as a “plus” in some ways. It’s tricky because I think social media feels safer than in-person interactions to our kids. But the consequences of what they post online have longer-lasting impacts than anything embarrassing they might say or do in person.
I have a 10-year-old 5th grader and a 2nd grader. Neither has a phone or any access to social media. The only computer access they have is their school computer. So far, not having a phone hasn’t been a problem outside of the fact that they want one. They can see their friends at school, after-school activities, and so on. I let them give out my number to friends and call if needed just like we used to call the landline or home phone.
I post fewer than five times a year. Despite that, they are very interested in looking and reading over my shoulder any chance they get. That strong desire to look and know what I’m looking at makes me concerned about how they will handle it when they get older.
We did get them Gizmo watches this year for communication and safety. It allows them to call or text approved contacts. This has worked well, but honestly, they don’t wear them much. I don’t mind them being able to communicate with family or friends.
I don’t have any interest in allowing them access to social media because I worry about [kids’] constant usage, addictive qualities, and issues with friendships and relationships. The fact is that kids are growing up in an age where they can’t make a mistake without all their peers knowing about it. Mistakes are how we learn. Through my job, I’ve seen older young adults that have grown up in the age of phones and social media often have a hard time communicating, retaining information, and staying focused at work.
I am nervous for them as they get older. It will be more accessible, I know that. I know I can’t shelter them forever. I worry about the hurt feelings. I think it is easier for people to be unkind behind a screen. I can teach them to deal with these feelings but these hurtful messages are so public.
As a parent, I find it hard not to get excited about a message when I’m waiting to hear back from someone. There are times I have to give myself a break from the phone due to the constant overstimulation. I don’t think kids have this ability. I’ve been watching other families and parents navigate through this and I think the next few years, as we delve into middle school, will be different from what our family has seen so far.
Dr. Rama Oskouian
My son is 11 and goes to a small classical Christian school. He has no access to social media. He has no idea what TikTok is. But, at his school, they do talk about the impacts of social media and we talk about the broader question of what being online means, even though he doesn’t have a smartphone. I will say that in my dental practice I definitely see that kids’ friendships are impacted by these devices and social media. I notice in our office that all these kids are sitting waiting and constantly taking selfies with filters. Just yesterday, I had a patient tell me “This person is mad at me because I didn’t ‘like’ their picture” on social media.
I don’t want my son to grow up feeling like his friends like him or don’t like him because of Facebook or Instagram or Tiktok. So, right now we are trying to teach Gregory that in the online world it is important to process what you see with your mind and heart. I tell him “God has given you a pure heart and sometimes you are going to witness things online that hurt your heart and change your perspective.” At the same time we are explaining to him that sometimes if you say something, you can’t take it back, especially online. A recent conversation went like this:
‘Here, let’s squeeze this toothpaste out. Now, Gregory, can you put it back in?’
‘Mom, I can’t. I can’t put it back in.’
‘Okay, Gregory. So you see, sometimes you might say something to your friends that might hurt their feelings, and you can’t take it back.’
I want my son to show acts of kindness. We are constantly reading about and practicing loving kindness and I hope that’s what he brings with him when he is old enough to access social media. I don’t know what age that will be for Gregory because everyone’s so different, right? I think it depends on his maturity in terms of his strong self-confidence and feelings of self-worth. When he does reach that point you can bet I am going to be that mom who really sets limits.
We are trying to be healthy models for our son. I’m not very active in my phone use and I don’t post anything to get ‘likes.’ Hopefully, he perceives this and doesn’t see being ‘liked’ as a reason to be on it. I don’t even think I’m going to allow him to access TikTok at all. And frankly, I don’t believe kids need Facebook or Instagram. Maybe when he’s in high school, but not anytime soon.
For now, he is busy with a lot of activities. We think that’s important for kids. He does baseball, Boy Scouts, and basketball. He has after-school band and math club, he’s reading a lot, and we spend a lot of time together as a family. I think that’s what we as parents need to be promoting to our children – the importance of getting outdoors, getting oxygen, getting sunshine, and family time. Let’s empower our kids to use social media to promote kindness!
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