Not long ago, my kids’ school asked me to give a talk to middle school students and their parents about smartphones. I’ve written extensively on the intersection of technology and society in both my books and New Yorker articles, but the specific issue of young people and phones is one I’ve only tackled on a small number of occasions (e.g., here and here). This invited lecture therefore provided me a great opportunity to bring myself up to speed on the research relevant to this topic.
I was fascinated by what I discovered.
In my talk, I ended up not only summarizing the current state-of-the-art thinking about kids and phones, but also diving into the history of this literature, including how it got started, evolved, adjusted to criticism, and, over the last handful of years, ultimately coalesced around a rough consensus.
Assuming that other people might find this story interesting, I recorded a version of this talk for Episode 246 of my podcast, Deep Questions. Earlier today, I also released it as a standalone video. If you’re concerned, or even just interested, in what researchers currently believe to be true about the dangers involved in giving a phone to a kid before they’re ready, I humbly suggest watching my presentation.
In the meantime, I thought it might be useful to summarize a few of the more interesting observations that I uncovered:
- Concern that young people were becoming more anxious, and that smartphones might be playing a role, began to bubble up among mental health professionals and educators starting around 2012. It was, as much as anything else, Jean Twenge’s 2017 cover story for The Atlantic, titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, that subsequently shoved this concern into the broader cultural conversation.
- Between 2017 and 2020, a period I call The Data Wars, there were many back-and-forth fights in the research literature, in which harms would be identified, followed by critics pushing back and arguing that the harms were exaggerated, followed then by responses to these critiques. This was normal and healthy: exactly the empirical thrust and parry you want to see in the early stages of an emerging scientific hypothesis.
- Over the last few years, a rough consensus has emerged that there really are significant harms in giving young people unrestricted access to the internet through smartphones. This is particularly true for pre-pubescent girls. This consensus arose in part because the main critiques raised during The Data Wars were resoundingly answered, and because, more recently, multiple independent threads of inquiry (including natural experiments, randomized controlled trials, and self-report data) all pointed toward the same indications of harm.
- The research community concerned about these issues are converging on the idea that the safe age to give a kid unrestricted access to a smartphone is 16. (The Surgeon General recently suggested something similar.)
- You might guess that the middle school students who attended my talk balked at this conclusion, but reality is more complicated. They didn’t fully embrace my presentation, but they didn’t reject it either. Many professed to recognize the harms of unrestricted internet access at their age and are wary about it. (My oldest son, by contrast, who is 10, is decidedly not happy with me for spreading these vile lies at his school.)
This is clearly a fascinating and complicated topic that seems to be rapidly evolving. If you’re struggling with these developments, I hope you find my talk somewhat useful. I’m convinced that our culture will eventually adapt to these issues. Ten years from now, there won’t be much debate about what’s appropriate when it comes to kids and these technologies. Until then, however, we’re all sort of on our own, so the more we know, the better off we’ll be.