5 Research-Backed Tips to Moderate Your Child’s Phone Use

As cell phone use rises, parents are navigating new territory about whether and when their children should have smartphones. Not surprisingly, 85% of Americans own a smartphone, so they are constantly and consistently connected to some sort of technology — many valuable and worthy, others a distraction.

Key takeaways:

As a result, the prominence of mobile technology access is top of mind for many parents. However, 71% of parents believe that smartphones have the potential to do more harm than good for their children. So, what does the research say? Read on to discover five research-backed tips to moderate your child’s phone use.

What does the research say?

There is a growing body of research examining smartphone use in children. Some studies evaluate the impact of using mobile devices based on the frequency of use or time spent on devices. One such study evaluated the developmental impact of mobile device use among 6-year-olds in Japan, concluding that frequent or long durations of mobile device use are linked to behavioral problems due to social isolation, decreased attention span, and lack of diverse learning experiences.

Other studies evaluate the impact of social media use on specific demographics. For example, one recent study found that, in general, higher social media use lowers self-esteem among adolescents. However, results varied in that adolescents with lower self-esteem sometimes successfully used social media to increase their self-esteem.

A new study examined the impact of cell phone use on low-income, Latinx children based on the age they became smartphone owners. Researchers evaluated a group of 7 to 11-year-old participants’ mental health, school grades, and sleep quality over several years and found that the age of cell phone acquisition did not impact these factors. They do, however, suggest that while there may be benefits of smartphone use at younger ages — such as access to learning opportunities, reliable internet connection, and exposure to public health information — smartphone use could have more negative effects later in puberty. The researchers suggested that it’s time to stop considering only the frequency and duration of smartphone use and start evaluating the quality of media kids are engaged in.

COVID accelerated mobile device use

Several recent surveys document the increase in technology use, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Across age, race, gender, and income, smartphone use is largely on the rise. For example, a 2021 Common Sense Media survey found that screen use continues to rise among kids aged 8–18, and much of that time is spent on social media.

What to make of this? Technology use intersects with kids’ surroundings at school and home. As educational systems adopt technology in learning environments, kids are often required to have digital skills at school and develop self-sufficiency through self-paced assignments and activities. Some say smartphones enhance digital learning through exposure to educational apps, games, and language-learning programs. Smartphones also provide internet access to those most impacted by the digital divide — the gap between who does and does not have digital technology access, such as computers, the internet, tablets, and smartphones.

Make a screen-time plan with your child

Research indicates that, while not all smartphone use is harmful, more kids are spending more of their screen time on social media, which has consequences such as increasing the number of cases of anxiety and depression. So whether your child has a smartphone or you’re trying to determine how and when you’ll provide one, here are five tips for healthy smartphone use.

  1. Implement screen-free zones and times in your house. Keeping some rooms and times of the day free of digital distractions can promote family bonding and other activities.
  2. Learn to use parental controls. You can do this on a device’s built-in controls or through monitoring apps.
  3. Consider developmentally appropriate technology use. For example, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends all screen time for 2-year-olds and under to be exclusively educational. As kids grow, offer limited screens for designated free time, but avoid using them to calm tantrums or as nighttime distractions.
  4. Know what your child is doing. Use their media interests to have conversations about online privacy and safety.
  5. Teach coping strategies. Especially if your child uses social media, it’s important to equip them with skills for recognizing negative feedback, bullying, and feelings of anxiety or depression.

Every family has unique needs and ideas about technology use. If your child has a smartphone, or you’re thinking of providing one, make a screen-time plan together and check in regularly about their use and how you can support them.

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