Common Sense Media found that more than half of U.S. kids get their own smartphone by age 11. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 95% of teens now have access to a smartphone. The same survey revealed that 45% of teenagers are “almost constantly” on the internet. Without their phones in hand, 56% of teens reported being upset or feeling anxious or lonely.
Most parents and teachers worry that young people don’t grasp the lasting imprint of a digital footprint, warning kids that what they post today could unravel their dreams tomorrow. It happened to then-27-year-old journalist wunderkind Alexi McCammond, who was about to become editor of Teen Vogue when anti-Asian and homophobic tweets she posted as a 17-year-old resurfaced. She and the magazine parted ways.
Teens worry, too, about their online afterlife, said James, but lack what she calls the agency about how to maintain control. Teens can’t control the posting of photos or private content that their peers may share. For example, McCammond apologized years earlier for her troubling teen tweets and deleted them, but they were resurrected when she won the Teen Vogue job.
“Help your teens expect and anticipate missteps,” said James, “and, when they stumble, if they make mistakes, we need to be there for them with empathy.”
James cites sexting as a practice that teens understand comes with risks but feel pressured to do it. “Boys who don’t really want to ask for nudes are pressured by their friends who want to know if they’ve asked their girlfriend for one. And girls feel they have no good choices when they are asked,” said James.
Adults have to recognize that phones serve as the connective tissue in teen lives. “If you don’t have a way to keep in touch with your peer group, you will be on sidelines, you will be left out,” she said. Turning off their phones means teens are cut off from what’s being posted about them and out of reach of friends who may be struggling.
James resists naming an ideal age to give a child a phone, saying parents have to consider their children’s susceptibility. “Are your kids orchids or dandelions? Dandelions are really hardy and can thrive in a range of conditions. Orchids are much more sensitive to changes in their environment. The question you have to ask is what will a digital device amplify for your child. It can amplify their strengths, but it can really open kids up to vulnerabilities and risks.”
Adults alarmed over their children’s digital dependency should examine their own, said James. She cited a group of Boston kindergartners who, as a project, designed their perfect playground. A feature in the plan: lockers to store smartphones so their parents would focus on playing with them rather than looking at their screens all the time.