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THE BIG IDEA

Kids, smartphones, and our enormous gamble

A student followed an online lesson on his mobile phone as he sat with others outside.Marco Alpozzi/LaPresse/Associated Press

Parents sometimes joke that they’re fine with their kids starting to date — if they wait until they’re 30.

I haven’t sorted out my feelings on dating yet. But waiting until 30 sounds just about right when it comes to buying a kid a phone. Indeed, almost every parent I know worries that a smartphone will erode focus, reduce interest in books and schoolwork, and introduce their child to all sorts of ideas and concepts they’re not ready for.

Ultimately, though, we mostly capitulate to the reality that — at least according to our kids — everyone else has a phone. But if so many parents are worried, should we capitulate? Or should we — albeit with some degree of difficulty — push back against the crowd?

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Carl Marci, a psychiatrist at Mass. General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says he’s deeply worried about kids’ embrace of screens: “We’re rewiring a generation of humans in an uncontrolled experiment with technology that is having significant consequences. And we need to pause.”

A few years ago, Marci was giving a talk to college students about his work on how screens impact our brains. He could tell they were paying attention — largely because they weren’t tapping away at their phones.

And then he asked: “How many people here think they have an unhealthy relationship with their phone?” Every hand went up. “And I was like, ‘OK, everybody? So what’s going on there?’ And several people were like: ‘Nobody told us. Nobody said, Hey, be careful!’ And they’re mad.”

A recent study from the Pew Research Center underscores the degree to which phones have taken over the lives of adolescents. About half of teens report that they are on the Internet “almost constantly,” with girls slightly more likely to be always online, and Black and Hispanic teens about 50 percent more likely than their white peers.

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Marci, the author of “Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age,” notes that our smartphone experiment has been going on for about 15 years — the iPhone was introduced in 2007 — and there’s no excuse for ignoring the lessons those years have taught us. We have increased rates of “depression, anxiety, ADHD, substance abuse, suicide. ... We’re more distracted, divided, and depressed.”

Last year, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy expressed deep concerns about the mental health of young people, noting that between 2009 and 2019, there was a 40 percent spike in high schoolers saying that they experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” And Murthy argued that technology “can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve.”

An NIH study begun in 2018 found that kids who spent more than two hours a day of their free time on devices did worse on thinking, language, and memory tests than kids who spent less time on devices. And the use of devices has skyrocketed over the last few years. In 2015, about 40 percent of 12-year-olds had their own phone. Now more than 70 percent do.

Marci fears that phone use is altering kids’ brains long-term, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which helps us — among other things — exercise impulse control and good decision-making.

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Until your mid-20s, your prefrontal cortex is still developing, and multitasking (a huge piece of what we do with our phones) puts an enormous strain on the prefrontal cortex. Indeed, study after study shows both kids and adults are terrible at multitasking.

Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital who focuses on children and media, says bluntly that “our human brain only thinks on one channel at once. Switch-tasking, which is what we’re actually doing, is a terrible way to do anything.”

But if you’re a teenager itching to grab a phone, the realities of neuroscience may not matter. And even those of us with fully developed prefrontal cortexes struggle mightily to put our phones down.

Which is by design. Much like slot machines, e-mail and social media apps offer intermittent rewards. Sometimes you get a message from someone you really like, or your boss, or your frenemy. But not mostly.

Of course, the feeling of victory when you do get one of those prized messages is fleeting. And, just like in a casino, in the long term, the house always wins.

“The overarching goal of businesses that create interactive digital experiences, in particular gaming and online video, is behavioral reinforcement that keeps users coming back,” Marci writes in “Rewired.”

And he sees kids losing tremendous amounts of sleep, because having a phone available all night is an almost irresistible temptation. “I tell parents, if there was just one rule, if you’re only going to institute one recommendation, it would be: Take the damn phone away at least an hour before bedtime.”

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At Children’s Hospital, where Rich directs the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders, he sees families getting phones for kids at ever earlier ages. “The wireless companies, quite honestly, are always trying to expand their market. And so they are pushing deeper into childhood.” Rich thinks the companies also try to convince parents that phones offer children a measure of safety.

To Marci, however, our societywide experiment with kids and screens is anything but safe. The desire to keep coming back to Twitter or TikTok or YouTube has turned phones, he says, into “mood regulators,” ways of dealing with boredom or anger or anxiety. “And the really insidious thing is the earlier you start doing that, the more dependent you are. Like, I’m already wrestling with my 9-year-old. ... Just go play the piano, go run around outside. Do anything but soothe yourself with YouTube. Because I can feel it — I can see he’s gravitating to it.”

Legislators can feel the scale of parents’ concern. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey is a co-sponsor of the KIDS Act, intended to address young people’s overuse — and misuse — of online platforms. “The handful of powerful online platforms where kids and teens spend most of their online time are inherently harmful to them,” Markey has written.

So, in a world awash in phones, what should parents do?

Both Marci and Rich insist that kids aren’t all the same, and pinpointing an exact age at which every kid should get a phone doesn’t make sense. Marci offers a range: “I think the answer is 14 to 16. I’d like to say 18, but that’s not going to happen, right?”

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Rich generally agrees that high school is a good time to introduce phones, though he recognizes how difficult it is to be the only kid in middle school without a phone.

Both doctors note that flip phones are a good place to start — kids can text and make calls, but they can’t use the phone for gaming, videos, or social media.

And it’s crucial for parents to set a good example. “Our use of devices is what they’re going to emulate,” says Rich. “The double standard of Dad on his phone at dinner answering e-mails and yelling at the kid for playing video games, that’s just hypocrisy to the kid.”

Parents should think of phones as tools, Rich argues. And they should ask their child why they need a phone, and what purpose it will serve for them. You wouldn’t get your kid an electric saw — a different kind of power tool — without making sure they knew what they were doing with it.

The reality is that kids already understand the effect of phones. Most teens who told Pew that they’re “almost constantly” online felt they were “on social media too much.” The results of our 15-year-old experiment with kids and phones are becoming increasingly clear. Kids know it, and so do we.


Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.