What’s the Best Age to Give My Teen a Smartphone?

Finally, a simple answer that makes perfect sense and is based on the most robust research
By Melanie Hempe
Melanie Hempe
Melanie Hempe
June 13, 2021 Updated: June 13, 2021

If you’re looking for confirmation that smartphones and social media are good for your kids, this is not one of those posts.

The “best age” question is a trick question. Here’s why. We don’t stress about the “best age” for things that are inherently good for our kids. Are there hundreds of opinions on the best and safest age to give your kids a book, a Rubik’s Cube, or a baseball? What about a vacuum cleaner? Do we have to seek medical guidance from counselors when our teens are spending too much time doing the dishes, playing outside, or cleaning the garage? Is there such a thing as teens becoming depressed because they are spending too much time riding bikes? No, because those activities aren’t harmful to your child’s brain and emotional development. The “best age for a smartphone” question is flawed. Perhaps a better question would be: Do teens even need smartphones?

Science Versus Culture

Our child, like a well-prepared prosecutor, pleads her case to us that she “will literally die without a phone.” And we are dying to make her happy. So we go against our parental instincts that tell us that our children are too young for smartphones. We then seek to confirm our biases by searching for blog posts filled with like-minded strangers’ opinions. In order to make smartphones kid-friendly, society says all you have to do is the following:

  1.  Make the phone less powerful and dangerous by purchasing layers of complicated parental controls.
  2.  Make your child more mature by having ongoing conversations, signing a phone-behavior contract or family pledge, and letting them practice with social media.

After all, we are reminded, all teenagers live online and smartphones are here to stay, so therefore they must be mandatory for teens. But these so-called safety measures are myths.

While necessary for a first line of defense, the first idea (parental controls) turns out to be a band-aid and offers a false sense of security. Teens easily discover workarounds and it’s impossible to put parental controls on social media content. Before you depend on this solution, ask any high school parent if parental controls have ever failed them (spoiler: the answer is usually yes).

The second idea is scientifically impossible. Medically speaking, we can’t force maturity or speed it up by just having conversations or signing contracts with our teens. Of course it’s important to communicate often with your teen, however, conversations and contracts don’t change teen behavior. If these methods worked, we would eliminate a host of teen problems—alcohol, drugs, pregnancy—overnight.

Additionally, practicing social media makes matters worse. Unlike practicing a sport or a music instrument, practicing an addictive activity such as social media doesn’t prepare teenagers to use it wisely or make them more mature. Data and science tell us that social media hurts our teen’s mental and emotional health in a very measurable way; stress and anxiety are skyrocketing. Teen brains aren’t resilient like adult brains and teens have lower impulse control than adults. Research also shows that the more exposure you have to an addictive activity—such as drinking alcohol or using social media—the higher your chances are for problematic use.

What to Focus on Before a Smartphone

Maturity: Teens aren’t mature, but they are very good actors! Just because we see signs of budding maturity in some areas of our teen’s life doesn’t mean she is ready for a smartphone. Disturbing content can’t be unseen. Your apprentice adult needs more time to mature through high school and even college before she develops the wisdom to manage the distractions of social media and beyond. Don’t confuse intelligence with maturity.

Healthy Experiences: Teens need a variety of healthy hobbies and physical activities to thrive. It’s critical for a teen’s development to pursue meaningful hobbies, purposeful work, entertainment activities, and excellent communication skills rather than spending time nurturing a screen dependency. The phone becomes a low-effort/high-reward activity that distracts and replaces many critical milestones and activities. Childhood can’t be re-done.

Attachment: Teens’ primary attachment to their family is more important during this stage of development than attachment to their digital peers. If you feel like you are losing your kids to their phones, you are.

Friends: Teens need relationships with a handful of close, in-person friends for the sake of their mental health. Social media won’t meet your teen’s friendship needs. Your child’s friendships are weakened when they move online—making teens lonelier than they have ever been.

Acceptance: Teens need a chance to grow up without being hurt and rejected online. Rejection is more harmful during this vulnerable and impressionable stage than any other stage of life. Adolescence is the worst time for social media.

Communication Skills: Teens need to build face-to-face communication skills by being in the presence of other humans. Texting and posting emojis aren’t mature or sustainable communication skills.

Non-Addictive Activities: Parents should free their teens from addictive practices now so they can develop their full future potential. They need caring adults to remove screen obstacles that get in the way of healthy childhood. Remember, 90 percent of all adult addictions start in childhood.

Protection: Teens need parents to protect them even if it means taking an unpopular and countercultural stand. It isn’t being overprotective to guard our kids in this area. Teens crave that kind of love.

A Viable Option

There is a better option. Like a good coach, you change the game plan when you are in the middle of a losing season. Replace the smartphone with a non-data (talk/text) phone if a phone is needed at all, and delay social media indefinitely, certainly through late adolescence. Trade the smartphone conflicts for the following:

  • An in-person social life: Help your child make lasting friendships and fun memories by planning more social activities at your home, often. Get to know their friends.
  • Non-tech hobbies: Guide your child to discover new hobbies and spend more time doing non-tech activities, such as reading, sports, music lessons, art, exercise, etc.
  • Time with you: Ultimately, your teens crave your attention, approval, and love more than all the social media likes in the world. Spend time getting to know your kids.

Our ScreenStrong Challenge is a great way to begin your journey. This 7- or 30-day detox will help your kids reset their habits and get back on track. You will love the break and they will, too!

Conclusion

I have never met a parent who wished they had given their teen a smartphone earlier than they did. Most will say they wish they had waited, as it was one of the worst parenting mistakes they ever made. They have discovered that the risks aren’t worth the benefits for teens. And in fact, with the increase in teen depression and suicide, the risks are serious.

There’s no longer a need to guess. The data is in and the teen smartphone experiment isn’t working. Your teen doesn’t need a smartphone or social media. And since it takes only a few minutes for a 4-year-old to learn how to use a phone, you can be sure that your teen won’t get left behind. You only have one shot to build a healthy childhood and your teens need your help and your leadership. Your kids are worth whatever it takes—even if that means going against the strong cultural pressure and delaying the smartphone.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children to gain the benefits of screen media without the toxic consequences of overuse that threaten healthy mental and physical development. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection. This article was originally published on ScreenStrong.com.

Melanie Hempe
Melanie Hempe