Commonsense Approach to Kids and Cellphones

By Sarah Shaffer


Cellphones are now an integral part of our lives and the lives of the children we love and nurture. The introduction of any new technology or cultural trend is almost always accompanied by fear and warnings that life as we knew it is about to change, and not necessarily for the better. I try to stay current on research findings related to child development. As recently as two years ago, headlines in the popular press summarized studies on kids and cellphones with dire warnings. We were told that youngsters needed digital diets, not cellphones; that tablet and phone use before bedtime disturbed sleep patterns in all ages; that a dark consensus about kids and screens was emerging in Silicon Valley; that smartphone addiction was real and linked to growing rates of obesity, psychological problems, and an increase in depression and suicide. Wow. Headlines such as those probably caused more parents to toss and turn than did reading on a digital device before turning out the lights.

There may be comfort in a Jan. 17, 2020 headline in The New York Times. “Panicking About your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t” What’s a parent to believe? What’s a parent to do? If it’s solace you’re seeking, the most recent article may be just what the doctor ordered. Regardless of which studies you choose to trust, the truth of the matter is that, much like the invention of the wheel and for better or worse, cellphones are here to stay. And although reassurance feels good and we may need to sprinkle all the previous warnings with a grain of salt, adults still have some important decisions to make regarding kids and cellphones. For starters, when should your child get a phone? Since no two children respond to technological temptations in exactly the same way, a lot depends on your child’s age and social maturity.

“Everybody in my class has one,” is a common argument but not necessarily a winning one. For a good general primer on when and how to introduce and negotiate cellphone use with your children, I suggest “An Age-by-Age Guide to Kids and Smartphones.” ( 3/21/18) Expert opinion can help parents frame and weigh the issues that need to be resolved between them and young family members who simply can’t wait to have their own phones. I recently asked a sixteen-year-old to summarize the best and worst things about smartphone use. “The best is that my friends and I stay in touch. The worst is that I can miss doing actual fun stuff because I’m too busy on my phone.” I love her last observation. If someone were to ask me what I find most worrying about how much time children spend on their phones, it would be that it too often comes at the expense of time spent outdoors. It’s up to us to make sure that cellphones enrich our kids’ lives rather than robbing them of developmentally necessary experiences, such as enjoying social exchanges and hands-on fun with their pals outside in the fresh air and sunshine.

Sarah Shaffer, award-winning educator, has been offering unique after-school enrichment and outdoor science and nature programs for children, parents, and teachers for over twenty-five years. More information about Sarah’s Science can be found at