Sixty-nine percent of kids have their own smartphones by age 12, up from 41 percent in 2015. And on average, 8-to-12-year-olds in the U.S. consume just under five hours’ worth of on-screen entertainment media per day, with teens’ use averaging just under seven and a half hours — numbers that don’t include time spent using screens at school or for homework.
These statistics come from a recently released national survey of media use among children ages 8 to 18 by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that has been tracking media trends since 2003. The group released another survey earlier in 2019 with the finding that 39 percent of teens feel they spend too much time on their mobile devices, and the same percentage feel addicted to them.
Locally, these statistics have many parents and educators concerned.
“Culturally, the deck is stacked against us,” said Liberty Schilpp of Wellfleet, who has two children ages 10 and 13. Young people who are defined as “heavy users” — who spend seven hours or more a day looking at screens — are more than twice as likely as their “low use” peers to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety. “Low use” is defined as one hour per day. Heavy users also show less curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability, according to a 2018 study in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.
Schilpp makes an effort to limit screen time at home, and while her kids were in elementary school she had no trouble saying no to their requests for their own devices. But once kids hit middle school and are traveling out of town to get there, she said, “There aren’t great options for communication. Everyone is expected to have cell phones — there are no pay phones.”
For after-school communication Schilpp purchased each of her children a flip phone a year and a half ago, but said it was a “real eye-opener” to realize this would cost her more than paying for two smartphones.
“I’ve talked with a lot of parents who are going through the same questions,” said Schilpp, “but I do wonder how many people just decide it’s easier to give them the phone and be done with it.”
Cindy Horgan, director of the Cape Cod Children’s Place in Eastham, said of all the parenting workshops her organization offers, those on the effects of technology on kids consistently attract the fewest sign-ups.
“I’ve been doing this kind of work for 25 years,” Horgan said, “and even back in the earliest days, when it was instant messenger, I started putting together workshops. What was sad to me was there’s been a pattern of ‘I don’t want you to tell me I’m doing anything wrong — because it’s easy.’ ”
Horgan said screen devices have a role in everyone’s lives today. “The answer isn’t to run away,” she said. “It’s to build skills and create balance.”
Her recommendations include setting family rules around devices that apply to both adults and children, keeping a land line for younger children to use to connect with friends, and creating contracts with older children once they have their own devices.
“I often say to parents, ‘Do you go and check your children’s phone?’ and they say, ‘I don’t have a right,’ ” Horgan said. “I say that until our child is paying the bill we have every right, and I suggest we make it a habit — not because we don’t trust our children, but because we’re teaching them.”
Dianna Morton of Eastham, who has worked as an educator for 25 years, became interested in the issues of kids and screen media while doing research for a master’s thesis in 2008.
“I learned that, of the 22 wealthiest nations on the planet, the U.S. came in second to last on childhood well-being,” said Morton, referring to a 2007 report from UNICEF, which gave top ratings to the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. “And I discovered that one huge difference between these countries and ours is the way they regulate advertising to kids through screen media.”
Morton went on to co-found Mass Media Literacy, an organization that works to teach Massachusetts students to engage with media using critical thinking and an informed outlook. She helped create a K-12 curriculum with the organization that addresses media literacy comprehensively: “Not just looking at content and deconstructing it, but also teaching educators and parents about what happens to children’s brains when they’re using digital media,” she said, adding that in her 20-plus years as an educator she’s watched anxiety and depression “skyrocket.”
“I am not anti-technology,” said Morton. “It can be a very valuable tool. But it’s my heart and passion to teach kids to learn to use it responsibly.”
Schilpp said she’s managed to avoid getting her kids their own devices longer than some others through casual agreements with other parents in Wellfleet’s tight-knit community, but she decided to give her daughter a smart phone for Christmas this year to help with managing her diabetes.
“I’m not planning to allow anything other than calling, texts, and the diabetes management app,” said Schilpp. “I’m thinking of it as my second phone that my daughter can use — but it doesn’t live in her room, and it gets charged overnight with mine.”
“The reality is I don’t know of anyone who’s getting a phone after 18,” said Horgan. “My hope is that those parents of 12-and-under kids can be united and say no smartphones, but that’s not always happening — we hear of eight-year-olds on up with iPhones. Our children today are born into the world of technology, so it’s part of their life. It is our responsibility to make sure they have really good skills around it.”