Last spring, Emily Cherkin, the “Screentime Consultant” and author of The Screentime Solution, A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family, led a workshop for faculty and presented a talk to parents later that evening. Our Upper School teachers are planning to continue the conversation with Emily this year, to include reviewing when to use or not use technology at BFS and how we can incorporate related lessons and discussions with students during our advisory and Mindfulness classes.

As an “away for the day” school regarding cell phones and other personal devices, we are committed at BFS to being “tech-intentional” regarding the use of technology for school-related activities. However, like schools across the country, and now supported in numerous studies, we are experiencing the impact of social media on the lives, social experiences, and mental well-being of our students. The following is a re-post of Emily’s latest blog:

“The smartphone-free childhood movement has grown rapidly through grassroots efforts by parents and is championed by leaders like Jonathan Haidt and Lenore Skenazy (and indeed, many of us who’ve been working for years) and I couldn’t agree more that too much technology too soon has radically changed childhood, and in turn, adulthood.

But what I see happening now in conversations around smartphone-free childhoods is a shift away from the commonly asked question “When should I get my child a smartphone?” towards “What kid-friendly smartphone alternative is the best option for my kid?” 

So, what are “kid-safe smartphones” and do they have a role in a smartphone-free childhood?

The short answer is: no. When parents advocating for a smartphone-free childhood turn to “alternative” phone options, we are missing the forest for the trees. Let’s talk about why.

The goal of a smartphone-free childhood isn’t just the elimination of smartphones; the goal is to ensure dependence on phones of any kind doesn’t inhibit healthy development.

At least, that’s how I see it.

A smartphone-free childhood puts skills before screens– smart, dumb, or otherwise, and the true needs of children are nurtured and supported (free play, time outdoors, real-world interactions with people). 

Kid-friendly smartphones are designed to look like real smartphones. Most lack social media apps (good) or web browsers (also good), but still offer apps with games, shopping, and other addictive and distracting digital tools. They also include surveillance tools, enabling parents to see what their kids are doing on the device without the child knowing. These devices are routinely marketed to parents as a solution to two problems: FOMO (“Your kid will have a phone just like everyone else”) and fear (“You’ll always be able to reach your kid, and you’ll always know what they are doing and where they are”). 

These companies prey on parent’s irrational fears about safety and real-world “danger” (kidnapping and stranger danger, for example), but ignore the real dangers of excessive time on screens– smart or otherwise. Worse, “kid-friendly smartphones” imply a need to constantly surveil our children as they move about the world. In the end, these devices are still products that displace the goals of a healthy childhood. 

Here’s the hard truth: there is no such thing as a “safe” smartphone for children. Having access to a phone is convenient for parents and helpful for communication, but not necessarily what is best for children, especially young ones. Children need time and opportunity to build real-world skills before relying on digital tools to solve problems. Reliance on phones (or smartwatches) to contact parents at any moment displaces experiences that children need to learn to trust themselves and others. 

A smartphone-free childhood should focus on what kids need to thrive. Carrying a device (smart, dumb, or otherwise) on their person increases distraction, displaces skills, decreases independence, and presents similar challenges to those of a “regular” smartphone. Maybe there aren’t any social media apps, but phone-based games are highly addictive; texting is interruption from someone who isn’t even in the room with you; and constant parental surveillance of a child’s location breeds distrust. 

The question does remain, however: “When should I get my child a phone– smart, dumb, or otherwise?” 

Here are a few key elements that need to be in place before any phone of any kind is provided to a child:

  1. Your relationship with them is strong (not necessarily conflict-free; some conflict is normal), and you trust that when they see bad or scary stuff, they will come to you. They also know you are a trustworthy person they can talk to. 
  2. You are ready for them to see porn and hatred and cruelty and know what to do when (not if) they do. 
  3. You are confident in their ability to navigate the real world independently of you or a digital tool (such as walking alone to a nearby friend’s house)
  4. You see they have the independence, assertiveness, and confidence to ask for help and get through stressful situations.
  5. Their friendships IRL are strong and healthy, and technology can be used as a tool to maintain existing relationships (like via texting or FaceTime).

To be clear, a phone-free childhood does not mean a child never uses a digital device or phone; I am tech-intentional, not anti-tech, after all. 

But a phone-free childhood means a young child does not have a personal device– their own iPad, smartphone, smartwatch, or smartphone alternative. Digital technology is a part of the modern world, and parents can and should talk regularly about how we use such tools to navigate our adult lives. I write regularly about the strategy of “living your life out loud” as a way to do just that. 

As children get older, it may make sense to scaffold some phone use– again, staying away from individual devices as long as possible, through strategies such as sharing a phone with your tween (we do this and it’s been quite the experience!). Then, when you and your child feel that the above criteria are in place, the next step does not have to be automatically a smartphone or a “kid-friendly” smartphone. I recommend that first phones are as simple as possible and serve the original purpose of having such a tool in the first place– communication. So calling and texting only. 

That’s it.  

To reap the full benefits, a smartphone-free childhood should be a personal-phone-and-watch-free childhood until at least age 12:

A phone-free childhood must include freedom from oversight and surveillance, which in turn allows children to build resilience and confidence in their own abilities (supported by messaging from parents that “You can do this!”) which positively impacts mental health and decreases vulnerability to bullying.

A phone-free childhood means a parent cannot reach a child throughout the school day– a huge disruption to learning and an adverse message to showing our kids we believe in their ability to be independent.

A phone-free childhood means a child is taught and learns to utilize skills like knowing how to ask for help and from whom, navigating their neighborhood and communities, and experiencing the discomfort of not always knowing the answer.

A phone-free childhood means dependence on self and peers, not phones and parents, which is critical to development and confidence in the teen years.

A phone-free childhood means creative solutions to connecting children with their peers– such as via a family landline, sharing a phone number with a parent, or relying on other old-school ways of communication (yes, this is possible).

Most importantly, a phone-free childhood means parents are courageous enough to say no to any personal device for their child, especially in the younger years, in recognition of what children really need to thrive: free play, time with friends, and time outdoors. “

1 thought on “There’s No Such Thing As a Safe Smartphone For Kids – What a “phone-free” childhood should really look like

  1. Thank you for this Paul. It’s a very sticky wicket indeed….for both us parents and kids alike. Recently I’ve wondered if sharing professional findings and media pieces with our young teens….The Social Dilemma…Screened Out.. about the increasing and legitimate concern over device usage/dependence might help get kids to start thinking about what’s actually going on beyond the Snapping and Texting or would it fall flat given that their young brains haven’t developed enough to make the connections….pun semi intended.

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