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My son just turned 14 and he does not have a smartphone. When he graduated from Grade 8, he was the last kid in his class without one. This is a unique distinction that he does not appreciate one bit. In fact, it comes up on a daily basis and mostly consists of the same conversation on repeat. He asks for a phone now that he’s going to high school, I say no, he asks why, I explain (yet again), he pushes back, and then I end the discussion by asking him to find me a study that shows phone use to be beneficial for teens. So far, he’s been unable to come up with any substantial evidence to make me change my mind, while conveniently educating himself on the very issues that concern me.

“You can choose to do things differently when you’re a parent,” I tell him. “But based on the extensive research I’ve done into teens and phones and social media, I would not be doing you any favours by letting you have one at this point.”

This does not resolve our debate – no 14-year-old will ever admit his mother is right – but it’s not long before he gets distracted by the many (screen-free) activities that fill his busy days and we move on. His question, however, lingers with me. I can’t help but wonder if I’m being too stubborn or unfair.

I start reading, researching, learning – and the more information I absorb, the more confident I feel in my goal of delaying his phone ownership. Studies abound, linking adolescents’ current mental-health crisis to fundamental changes in how they socialize, namely, the shift from in-person to online interactions. It is online that social media and a toxic culture mingle to create a cauldron of stimuli that feels all-consuming, ever-present, and inescapable.

But other parents challenge my perspective. “What about his friends? He must feel so left out!” Left out from what? I want to ask. The fractured sleep, increased exposure to online bullying, and body image issues associated with social media use?

Then there are the parents who tell me quietly, privately, with profound sadness, that they wish they could go back and do things differently, that they wish they had delayed their teen’s phone ownership longer than they did. “I caved too soon,” they say. “My child wasn’t ready for it.” Others whisper that they fear their child has been “ruined” by their device. They urge me to hold out.

The justifications for my stance are there, steeped in social science and statistics I’ve read while researching my book Childhood Unplugged, but I keep coming back to something else – time management. If teens between the ages of 13 and 18 are truly spending an average of 8 hours, 39 minutes per day on their devices, as stated in a 2021 survey conducted by non-profit research organization Common Sense Media, then what are they not doing? Kids absorbed in their devices are missing out on real life, and that strikes me as tragic.

I want my son to have a childhood that he can look back on with satisfaction, pride and delight. I want it to be full of adventures, imaginative play, physical challenges and struggles from which he must extricate himself – and emerge stronger – without summoning me at the push of a button. I want him to engage in problem-solving, to figure out how to get from point A to point B on his own, to learn how to talk to strangers and carry a conversation, to ask questions and make eye contact. I want him to experience privacy and anonymity and boredom. I want him to be stuffed full of memories that will some day make him laugh, cringe and reflect. I want him to read books that lead to questions and animated discussions around the dinner table. I want him to learn the value of thinking critically and not jump on bandwagons just because “everyone else is doing it.” I want to create time and space for us to have deep conversations when we are driving at night, as he grapples with the onset of adulthood – and I savour these last few years of childhood.

The easiest and simplest way to achieve these goals is to delay giving him a smartphone. I’m not saying that children with phones cannot have these same experiences, but there is a particular depth, absence of friction and frequency of interaction that occurs in an environment where phones are absent and all family members are present, both physically and mentally. Here in our home, we have no choice but to engage with each other; we cannot take the path of least resistance and succumb to that “greedy shard of glass and metal” (to quote author Paul Greenberg) in our pockets that is designed to be irresistible.

Some may call me naive, assuming my son is missing out or falling behind, but he is not. He does well in school. He has good friends that he hangs out with in person. He participates in extracurricular activities and moves independently around our small town. And we talk about hard things; I strive to provide context for the horrors that exist in the world, rather than handing over a device that shows all without explaining it. Nor does he lack tech skills; he is comfortable navigating computers and other devices at school and at home. He watches movies and plays video games at his friends’ houses.

But he still can’t have a phone.

He swears he’ll give his own 14-year-old a phone some day, and I tell him that’s fine, he can do what he wants once he’s the parent. But recently he admitted that he missed the beautiful scenery while driving to a nearby ski hill because he had been so absorbed in his friend’s iPad.

“It wasn’t a nice feeling.”

If that is his version of admitting I’m right, I’ll take it.

Katherine Johnson Martinko lives in Port Elgin, Ont.

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