Like most kids who have recently been given their first cellphones, Andrea’s 12-year-old daughter is pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. When asked what she likes best about her new iPhone, she shrugs. “Feeling responsible,” she says. Besides, since her friends mostly interact over Snapchat and Instagram, the phone is a crucial way to keep in touch. Sure, she’s heard about kids “writing rude things” on social media, and sneaking off to the school bathroom to check their notifications. But over all, she’s not worried.
“Worried,” however, hardly begins to describe the deep apprehension that Andrea feels toward her daughter’s phone. Andrea’s concern, or one of them, is that as the phone replaces face-to-face interactions, her daughter “won’t be able to communicate or develop deeper, meaningful friendships. And it’s easy enough for a grownup to fall into the trap of valuing yourself for your ‘likes.’ How is a hormonal teenager going to handle that?”
Among the infinite sources of anxiety involved in childrearing today, few fill parents’ hearts with icy dread quite like the question of when kids should get their first smartphones. For modern parents, members of the last generation to grow up prior to ubiquitous internet access, equipping kids with their first phone often feels like a momentous decision – one that could impact children’s social development, influence their sense of self, shape their first romantic experiences and even condition their experience of “reality.”
And yet, despite their often-profound misgivings, most parents today act as though the smartphone is simply an unavoidable fixture of adolescence. That is an interesting reversal of expectations. Pop psychology tells us that today’s parents are mollycoddling, hyper-protective control freaks. Yet, when it comes to the signature parenting issue of our generation – the effect of smartphones on children – we have ceded control to the kids themselves, or to the marketing departments of Silicon Valley corporations. Kids are going to “need” those phones, according to the dominant cultural narrative, because the future. Or connection. Or something.