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Smartphones and the abdication of parental responsibility

Ira Wells teaches at the University of Toronto.

Like most kids who have recently been given their first cellphones, Andrea's 12-year-old daughter is pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. When asked what she likes best about her new iPhone, she shrugs. "Feeling responsible," she says. Besides, since her friends mostly interact over Snapchat and Instagram, the phone is a crucial way to keep in touch. Sure, she's heard about kids "writing rude things" on social media, and sneaking off to the school bathroom to check their notifications. But over all, she's not worried.

Read also: Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. So why can't you put it down?

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"Worried," however, hardly begins to describe the deep apprehension that Andrea feels toward her daughter's phone. Andrea's concern, or one of them, is that as the phone replaces face-to-face interactions, her daughter "won't be able to communicate or develop deeper, meaningful friendships. And it's easy enough for a grownup to fall into the trap of valuing yourself for your 'likes.' How is a hormonal teenager going to handle that?"

Among the infinite sources of anxiety involved in childrearing today, few fill parents' hearts with icy dread quite like the question of when kids should get their first smartphones. For modern parents, members of the last generation to grow up prior to ubiquitous internet access, equipping kids with their first phone often feels like a momentous decision – one that could impact children's social development, influence their sense of self, shape their first romantic experiences and even condition their experience of "reality."

Illustration by Michael Haddad

And yet, despite their often-profound misgivings, most parents today act as though the smartphone is simply an unavoidable fixture of adolescence. That is an interesting reversal of expectations. Pop psychology tells us that today's parents are mollycoddling, hyper-protective control freaks. Yet, when it comes to the signature parenting issue of our generation – the effect of smartphones on children – we have ceded control to the kids themselves, or to the marketing departments of Silicon Valley corporations. Kids are going to "need" those phones, according to the dominant cultural narrative, because the future. Or connection. Or something.

While parents endlessly discuss when kids should get their first phones, there's no debating that children are getting phones earlier than ever. In the United States, where statistics are more readily available, the average child gets his or her own smartphone at 10.3 years of age, down from 12 just a few years ago, according to the marketing firm Influence Central. In this country, more than one-quarter of Grade 4 students have their own phone, according to a 2015 report by MediaSmarts, a digital literacy non-profit. That number rises each year until Grade 11, when 85 per cent report owning a phone. Of course, simply having a phone does not guarantee participation in social media, but let's be real. One-third of Canadian children in Grades 4 to 6 have Facebook accounts, even though the site is technically prohibited to those under 13, according to MediaSmarts.

Most parents, educators and experts agree that there is no universal "right" age at which to give kids their first phones. For Alex Russell, a clinical psychologist who works with children and teenagers and author of Drop the Worry Ball: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement, the decision must be situated within an understanding of the overall maturation of individual children on their path to autonomy.

"Parents are understandably anxious over their children's online activities," Dr. Russell said over the phone. "But a healthy development process will involve children taking on some of that anxiety for themselves. We want kids to be playful, but appropriately wary." In Dr. Russell's experience, parents tend to get hung up on the alarming (violent or sexual) content of digital media, where they should really be concerned about the form: that is, how digital media can prevent the uninterrupted experience of our own private interiority.

But just how harmful is this new media, really? Few authorities suggest prohibiting smartphones; even the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) suggests that moderation is key, counselling parents to set limits on smartphone usage and "unplug" at least an hour before bedtime, given the melatonin-suppressing effects of cellular devices – although the CPS also acknowledges that the digital landscape is evolving faster than research can measure the effects on children.

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That research, however, is starting to catch up – and the results are unsettling. In an article this month in Clinical Psychological Science, the American psychologist Jean Twenge and three co-authors highlight the connection between the recent spike in mental health issues among adolescents and the concomitant rise in electronic device usage. Their study found that four suicide-related outcomes – feeling sad or hopeless, seriously considering suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide – were "significantly correlated" with new media screen time. "The results," the authors conclude, "show a clear pattern linking screen activities with higher levels of depressive symptoms/suicide-related outcomes and non-screen activities with lower levels." The negative psychological outcomes were particularly pronounced among young women, who use social media more heavily and are more frequently the victims of cyberbullying than their male peers.

While the connection between depression and the new media is certainly alarming, it also confirms what many parents have long suspected: our kids' sense of self-worth is often hopelessly entwined with the "like-driven" economy that governs social media. Children have difficulty negotiating technologies that have been engineered, in the words of Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist, to "exploit our minds' weaknesses" through supplying intermittent variable rewards (such as notifications, matches and so on), which operate according to the logic of slot machines to maximize addiction. And kids' induction into these technologies comes at a tumultuous life-stage of social and intellectual development. "Imagine trying to focus on quadratic equations with your cellphone constantly buzzing in your pocket," says Lesley McLean, a Grade 11 History and English teacher. Schools are facing a constant stream of issues, she says, from naked pictures to bullying, and no one knows how to cope.

It is a bitter irony that today's parents – who micromanage every facet of their children's lives, from their diet and vaccinations to their cultural consumption and education – have nonetheless passively accepted this potentially noxious technology as an inevitable part of their kids' future. Many parents of teens and preteens are openly thankful that we didn't have to contend with new media when we were growing up – thank God that our every social feud, silly picture, or foolish remark was not catalogued for posterity online. And yet, when it comes to our children, we quietly relinquish our parental responsibility to U.S. tech companies, whose directives to "innovate" and "connect" now resonate so deeply that, apart from fusty appeals to nostalgia or neo-Luddism, we cannot even conceive of breaking from the narrative. We recognize that social media may be destroying democracy, but presume that its effects upon our teenagers will be nugatory.

That may be starting to change. In a recent talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth for Facebook, openly advocated for people to take a "hard break" from social media, which he claimed is "ripping apart the social fabric." "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops – hearts, likes, thumbs-up – are destroying how society works. … There is no civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth." His own children, he said, aren't allowed to use social media.

If a former vice-president of Facebook has prohibited his own kids from social media, why does it strike us as inconceivable that we should do the same?

The trouble starts when we tell ourselves that smartphones will make our children safer, that these devices will enable us to monitor their movements at a time when many are starting to walk to school or take the subway on their own. Kids, of course, want the phones for their own reasons, to be able to connect with their peers through social media. We then tell ourselves that it would be cruel to bar kids from doing so; that it might even be socially ostracizing. What parents may fail to appreciate is the severity of the ostracization and exclusion that occurs within the social networks they fear their children may be excluded from.

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Parents always begin with the assumption that "their kids will use their phones in a limited way," Dr. Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, wrote in an e-mail. Or they "assume that if they spend lots of time on the phone it's harmless – after all, parents use social media themselves and are 'fine.' It's easy to be optimistic and not expect your kid to be the one who suffers the consequences."

But kids may, in fact, suffer the consequences. As we learn more about the link between new media and mental illness, about the ways in which such media has been engineered to addict, parents should remind ourselves that smartphones are a consumer choice subject to parental discretion, not a harbinger of some preordained digital future. We should recognize the distinction between "convenience" and "safety." We should no longer pretend that the smartphone is merely a tool, that what matters is how it is used – while ignoring the ways in which we are in turn programmed by the devices themselves, the ways that they use us. And we could stand to take ourselves more seriously: If we are thankful for our own unmediated childhoods, why sentence our kids to psychic lives of distraction?

Above all, however, we must no longer passively accept the logic of technological determinism – that our own parenting decisions and values must adapt to serve the economic interests of tech companies. Every technological innovation, Marshall McLuhan once observed, brings about a corresponding amputation. It is the right of every parent to decide not only when those amputations should come, but if they should come at all.

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