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Here’s the right age to give your child a cell phone, according to experts

Low angle view of boy looking at digital tablet while lying with sisters using mobile phone on bed at home
You may want to hold off on buying your kid a smartphone.
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Earlier this week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared that social media poses a “meaningful risk of harm to children” in his latest advisory. Now, a global study of nearly 30,000 young adults shows a strong correlation between the age at which children receive their first smartphone and the status of their mental health. The study also found that trends of lower self-worth, motivation and resilience were stronger among females compared to males

Researchers determined that the older children were when they received their first smartphone or tablet, the better their mental well-being was as adults. However, those who received their first smartphone at a younger age were “more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression towards others and a sense of being detached from reality.”  

The study, which was conducted by Sapien Labs as part of the Global Mind Project, an ongoing survey of global mental well-being, used a comprehensive assessment called the Mental Health Quotient, or MHQ, to determine mental well-being. The assessment includes 47 elements covering a range of symptoms and mental capabilities, which are then categorized into six dimensions of well-being:

  1. Mood & Outlook
  2. Social Self
  3. Adaptability & Resilience
  4. Drive & Motivation
  5. Cognition
  6. Mind-Body Connection

The impact of social media on mental health

According to statistics found in Murthy’s advisory, adolescents who spend at least three hours a day on social media “face double the risk of mental health problems including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.” The national average for time spent on social media for eighth- and 10th-graders is 3.5 hours a day. 

Although children under 13 technically are not allowed to sign up for accounts on social media sites, such as TikTok and Snapchat, it is easy to bypass restrictions. Nearly 95% of young people between the ages of 13 and 17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” as previously reported in Fortune.

Heavy social media use is also negatively impacting sleep in adolescents. A recent study by De Montfort University Leicester in the U.K. suggests that 12.5% of 10-year-olds are losing about one night of sleep per week because they’re waking up in the middle of the night to check notifications.

As a result, the Surgeon General has called for more government oversight, such as “age-appropriate health and safety standards for technology platforms” and “higher standard of data privacy for children and adolescents.” However, the most critical role will come down to parent and caregivers’ involvement.

How to safely introduce a phone (and when)

“It’s crucial to remember that our brains merge with our environments, and children’s brains are still developing, so it’s our responsibility as adults to communicate with and educate our children, especially concerning a key part of modern society: smartphone technology and access to social media,” says Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist and author of How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess. “This means we need to educate ourselves and our children on how to manage this continuous content and how this impacts the brain.”

Leaf encourages caregivers to talk with their children about how social media may be influencing them and how it’s making them feel. But be prepared to explain your reasoning for not letting them have a smartphone, if that’s the route you choose.

“Restricting something or just saying no without explanation will only make your child more interested in the ‘forbidden,’” she says. “As parents, we want to educate and guide our children to better prepare them for the modern world, which includes teaching them how to use and interact with technology like smartphones.”

One option Leaf shares is to start them off with a flip phone around age 10 to 13 without access to the internet or apps, so they can learn the value of texting and communication. 

“It shows they are learning to manage communication and encourages them to bring questions to their parents,” she explains. “Then, using their phone becomes a healthy, collaborative effort and you can eventually give them more freedom, such as a simple smartphone with safety restrictions to prevent them being targeted by unsavory individuals or organizations.”

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