Giving smartphones to kids: Our unseen health crisis

5 min read
Cecilia Robinson

8 August 2023

Opinion as featured in the New Zealand Herald

This may be an unpopular opinion, but we're on the cusp of a health crisis that could make the smoking epidemic of the past look like a mild inconvenience. And the cause? Our children's smartphones.

With the National Party vowing to ban students from using their phones at school a conversation is beginning around our tolerance for children using phones.

This week it is our son's 11th birthday and we’ve bought him a brick. By 'brick', I refer to the mobile phones of the early '90s, the Nokia-esque devices that were just phones, not pocket-sized computers that command our attention at every waking moment.

As he heads off to intermediate, it’s become increasingly evident that we will need a way to contact him so a phone is an inevitable yet frustrating prospect.

Although it seems we may be late to the party, with most of his friends already having smartphones, the going age seems to be any point from 8 years of age. But as a parent and Co-CEO of Tend, a technology-based primary healthcare provider, I see the catastrophic rise in mental health concerns among children and teenagers, and I'm not prepared to contribute to that trend.

Young people receiving smartphones at a younger age have worse mental health outcomes, according to research by Sapien Labs. The study surveyed 28,000 individuals aged 18-24 and found a significant link between early smartphone use and poorer mental health, regardless of childhood trauma. The impact is particularly evident in the "social self" category, attributed to increased technology use and reduced face-to-face interactions. Children spending 5-8 hours online daily could displace 1,000-2,000 hours of face-to-face social activities per year.

As we delve further into the digital age, there's a critical debate we're not having about mental health and screen use among children, adolescents, and adults. We're failing to consider preventive measures seriously, and the consequences are already making themselves known. Consider this: we regulate activities like gambling, drinking, and driving based on age due to their potential harm.

Isn't it high time we discuss a similar approach for smartphone use? Giving free rein to children in the digital playground that smartphones provide is akin to giving cigarettes to children decades ago. We didn't understand the full consequences then, and we may be in a similar situation now.

According to a paper published by Orben and colleagues, there are "windows of developmental sensitivity" during adolescence where higher social media use predicts lower life satisfaction a year later. This correlation was particularly notable for girls aged 11 to 13 and boys aged 14 to 15. The reverse was also true: lower life satisfaction predicted higher social media use a year later.

In the last five years, the dispensing of antidepressant medications to children and teenagers in New Zealand has increased by 53% according to a report by the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission. We should all be horrified by this.

Links between social media and suicide rates among teens have also been suggested, as well as the role social media plays in eating disorders, further highlighting the potential danger that unrestricted smartphone use can pose.

While it's clear that further research is needed to fully understand these complex relationships, what's evident is that we need to start taking the mental health implications of smartphone use seriously. We need to educate ourselves, our children, and society at large about the potential risks and learn how to tone down tech in a world that is increasingly connected.

As parents, we have a responsibility to protect our children. That's why our son will be getting a brick for his birthday. It may not be popular (in particular not with our son), but I believe it's a step in the right direction. We need to bring back balance and ensure that our children's mental health isn't the price we pay for technological advancement.

We may not have all the answers yet, but starting the conversation is the first step and I applaud National's policy in banning phones at school.

The societal pressure around smartphones is one of the key reasons why parents are purchasing these phones. My hope is that this is the beginning and that policy makers give serious consideration to implementing a ban on smartphones for children under 16.

Let's ensure that in the future, we don't look back on this period of unrestricted smartphone use with regret, the same way we now look back on the era of freely giving cigarettes to children.

As for my husband and I, we understand that at some point, we will have to expose our son to this level of technology, but that day is not today or in the foreseeable future. Childhood is precious and fleeting, and we want him to experience it fully – offline.

We want him to know a world beyond screens, likes, and virtual validation and simply just be Tom, without the hashtag. It's not about denying progress and as the CEO of a health technology company, advancement is at the very heart of what I do each day. However, ensuring that our children can navigate the digital age safely and healthily needs careful consideration. After all, their mental health is at stake, and no innovation or convenience can justify endangering that.