Technology developed over the past two decades—including smartphones, laptops, tablets, and the applications that populate them—has radically transformed what childhood looks and feels like, and parents are having a hard time adjusting.
Not only is technology unfamiliar territory for many adults who didn’t grow up online, but the experts they are supposed to be able to turn to for answers don’t agree about what tech is doing to kids’ brains, relationships, and mental health.
The truth is that we don’t yet fully understand the effect that living, learning, loving, and making friends in a digital world is having on children. “There is a lot of discrepancy, and it’s not exactly clear because this is all brand-new,” says Adam Pletter, a child psychologist and founder of iParent 101. “We don’t have the data, and we don’t know exactly what the outcomes are.” But he thinks that “we can make lots of good guesses.” Much of the available science on these questions centers around teens and tweens, who are more likely than younger children to own a smartphone, since about 45% of American kids get a smartphone service plan between 10 and 12.
One of the foremost experts on the impact of tech on teens is Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego University and the author of books and articles about this issue. She coined the term “iGen” to refer to kids born between 1995 and 2012, who have grown up with smartphones and the Internet. Twenge writes in the Atlantic that the arrival of the smartphone in 2007 “radically changed every aspect” of iGens’ lives, “from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.” Studies show that connected teens are less likely to engage in a whole host of behaviors their tech-free predecessors did a lot of, like date, have sex, see friends, and drive cars. Excessive screen time in children has been associated with everything from developmental delays to behavior problems and learning disabilities—though it’s important to note that many of the studies showing these links document correlation, not causation.
Connected teens are less likely to engage in a whole host of behaviors their tech-free predecessors did a lot of.
There also seem to be ways in which constant use of technology makes teens and tweens both more and less safe. Most parents who choose to give kids under 13 a smartphone do so for security reasons: The devices allow parents to get ahold of their children or even track their location, and data does show that iGens might be safer IRL (in real life) thanks to technology. According to Twenge, they are less likely to do reckless things like get pregnant as a teenager or binge drink. “More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party,” Twenge writes, “today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been.”
And yet, as Twenge told Quartz, iGens “may be physically safe that way, but mental health is a whole other question.” There are worrying signs that teens’ use of social media networks like Facebook and Snapchat is contributing to a mental health crisis in their age group. Phones also seem to be getting in the way of sleep, which has been directly linked to later emotional issues in teens. According to Twenge’s research, between 2008 and 2017, depression, self-harm, and suicide rates jumped in teenagers and young adults. She attributes this shift to smartphones and digital media, and the impact they have on kids’ social and emotional lives.
Beyond the mental health and cognitive impacts, there are also very real dangers online: While iGens are up in their bedrooms, on their phones or laptops, not drinking or partying, they could be hanging out on Houseparty, an app that allows them to join a virtual “party” by video-chatting groups of people, including total strangers trolling around the Internet for access to minors. They could be exposed to violent and offensive language on Discord, a chat room for gamers, for example, or watching hours on end of conspiracy videos on YouTube.
“At some point, your child has got to learn to stand on their own two feet online.”
Parents who might be reading this and feeling inclined to make their kids delete all their apps should know that, even on these questions, experts disagree. Psychiatrist Richard Friedman wrote that “there is little evidence of an epidemic of anxiety disorders in teenagers,” and that the evidence that does exist mostly relies on parents or kids self-reporting their own feelings or their kids’ feelings. Those surveys “tend to overestimate the rates of disorders because they detect mild symptoms, not clinically significant syndromes,” he writes. He speculates that the so-called teen anxiety epidemic “is simply a myth.”
Many other experts note that anti-screen hysteria is not always justified. They say screens and the internet, like anything else, should be used in moderation; in excess, they can harm more than they help. “When children use technology,” read a recent New York Times headline, “let common sense prevail.”
Meanwhile, Jordan Shapiro, an assistant professor of philosophy at Temple University and author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, argues that, while “there’s a lot of fear about the terrible things that happen online… there’s not a lot of data showing it.” And it’s true that research shows that the perceived prevalence of risks like sexual harassment and bullying online is often overblown.
“I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
Even if there is cause for concern on that front, some say that trying to monitor everything kids do online, or keeping kids away from technology altogether, could impede their ability to deal with the challenges of online life in the future. “At some point, your child has got to learn to stand on their own two feet online, because they are going to be an adult in that weird and wonderful and horrible world,” says Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics who specializes in digital media and kids. “And you can’t protect them until they’re 18 and then have them be a resilient person who can make decisions themselves.”
Parents find themselves having to balance all of these considerations while dealing with the immediate challenge of a tween demanding an iPhone because everyone else in their class has one, or a teenager hiding a secret TikTok account. They know that, no matter what they decide, they’re sacrificing something—like their kids’ privacy at the expense of their security, or their future digital literacy in the name of protecting their childhood.
Tech anxiety among parents is palpable. Athena Chavarria, an executive assistant to the CFO at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, memorably told the New York Times: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”