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John Turpin has a small safe with a timer to lock phones in when his kids haven’t done their chores.Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Ask any parent how difficult it is to keep smartphones out of their kids’ hands and they will share many stories of struggle. John Turpin will point to the small safe he recently bought.

It comes with a timer, and once it is set and locked, it can’t be opened.

Mr. Turpin, a project manager who lives in Oshawa, Ont., picked up the safe a month ago. Before that, he would often take his teenagers’ phones away for one reason or another, but usually returned the devices early, worn down by their pleading.

The safe, which sits in a cabinet in the family’s living room, is the newest evolution in the conversations Mr. Turpin and his wife have been having with their 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter about their phones.

“We have this discussion regularly about the kind of addiction that it creates, how it sort of leads you down this road of just continuous distraction,” Mr. Turpin says.

Schools across Canada are banning or limiting phones in the classroom, saying they pose too much of a distraction. Four Ontario school boards recently launched a lawsuit against the social media behemoths behind Snapchat and TikTok, as well as Meta, the owner of Instagram and Facebook, saying their products deliberately interfere with learning and harm kids’ mental health.

Meanwhile, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in his new book, The Anxious Generation, that the accumulation of studies showing smartphones’ negative impacts on teenagers, including rising rates of anxiety and depression, is so strong that kids should be prohibited from using social media until they are 16 and should not have smartphones until high school. (Parents who want to stay in touch with their kids before then should get them flip phones at age 13 at the earliest, he says.)

Family support: How parents can set rules for smart phone use

Pulled between the desire to stay in touch and the fear of the devices’ harms, parents are using a wide-range of strategies to manage their kids’ smartphone use, from turning to other high-tech solutions, such as the Apple Watch, to going in the other direction altogether, with a rotary phone.

The need to limit and delay smartphone use among kids, particularly when it comes to social media, has never been more clear, says Elia Abi-Jaoude, staff psychiatrist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

In a paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2020, Dr. Abi-Jaoude and colleagues reviewed more than 60 studies on the relationship between young people’s use of smartphones and social media and mental health.

“Epidemiological studies have been fairly consistent in showing associations between these platforms and mental health struggles of all sorts, including anxiety and depression,” he says.

Dr. Abi-Jaoude and his fellow authors recommended kids spend no more than two hours a day on digital devices.

That may seem impossible in a world where we have all become more reliant on screens, but delaying and limiting smartphone use is still necessary.

“Absolutely, parents should maintain control as much as possible, as developmentally appropriate,” he says.

When Mehran Redjvani recently gave his 11-year-old son a flip phone and not the smartphone he had been begging for, the boy tossed it aside and told his father he had wasted his money.

“I thought, perfect. This is exactly what we wanted. We didn’t want him to be hooked on the phone ,” says the property manager who lives in Toronto. “I said to him, ‘This phone is not for you. It’s for me and mum to be able to reach to you.’”

Mr. Redjvani says he will probably get his son a smartphone when he starts Grade 9, but until then is too worried about the device eating into time he would otherwise be playing soccer or tinkering on the piano.

Being able to reach kids is one reason parents often get phones for their kids, but so too is the need for their kids to stay connected to their friends, says Kate Meadowcroft, a teacher in Ottawa, who gave her 13-year-old son a phone when he reached Grade 7.

“At some point, you know, your kids are going to get left out socially, she explains. “The moms stopped texting each other about getting together and the kids start to take ownership of it when they have their own phones. And so I held out for as long as I could, both with the phone and with Snapchat, and have unfortunately now had to keep to both,” she says.

Ms. Meadowcroft has set parameters on her son’s phone that disconnect it from the WiFi at 9 p.m. until the next morning, and his phone is not allowed in his room at night.

Some parents cave much earlier.

Half of kids in Canada between the ages of seven and 11 own their own mobile device, while 87 per cent of kids ages 12 to 17 own one, according to Statistics Canada.

James Smith’s eight-year-old daughter began asking for a phone when she was six, saying her friends had them. Instead, he recently bought her an Apple Watch.

The watch allows Mr. Smith and his partner to keep tabs on their daughter’s whereabouts, and its Walkie-Talkie function means they can speak to her, says Mr. Smith, a social media specialist who lives in Vancouver.

“We wanted to be able to make sure that if needed, she could contact us or we could contact her or if there’s an emergency,” he says.

Krista Mussell, an interior designer in Toronto, takes away her 12-year-old son’s smartphone if he is caught playing video games when he should be doing homework or sneaking onto the phone at night when he’s supposed to be sleeping.

“He’d never admit it, but I actually think he doesn’t mind having the phone confiscated. I think it puts you in a bad mood and it gets you a little stressed out. And so just not having that must feel okay,” she says.

There are many studies that support Ms. Mussell’s assumptions, says Dr. Michelle Ponti, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s digital health task force.

“Even reducing your screen time and time on social media by one or two hours a day improves your mood dramatically,” she says. “But each child within the family is going to have a different kind of screen time plan, depending on their age and their stage and their developmental level.”

To get away from the harms of smartphones, one parent took a giant leap into the past and went back to the days of land lines.

Jacqueline Briggs, a post-doctoral researcher in Ottawa, plans on holding off buying her 12-year-old daughter a smartphone for as long as possible.

In the meantime, she bought a rotary phone and had business cards printed with the number on them for her daughter to hand out to friends two years ago.

Yes, it was “cringe” at first, but her daughter talks to friends on the phone all the time, Ms. Briggs says.

The potential harms of giving her a smartphone are simply too high, she says.

“If we know something’s addictive and it’s not good for their mental health, especially for preteen girls and teenage girls, why would we encourage access to it?”

How do you approach allowances for your kids?

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