While doing off-to-kindergarten shopping the other day, I was sorting through glitter glue and pencil crayons when my son turned to me with an urgent request: He “needed” a cellphone, he said, so his friends could text him. My son is 5 and does not yet know how to read.
I began to laugh, but his furrowed brow told me he was dead serious. He wanted that cellphone. The kind he had used to Snapchat with older cousins, the sort clutched by the boy in the next aisle and, yes, the kind I had just used to snap a “first day of school shopping” picture of him for immediate viewing by friends and family.
I had a flash of parental worry about how a cellphone could take over my child’s life. I’m familiar with parents’ anxieties about cellphone use, but as a developmental psychologist who uses cellphones to study adolescents’ relationships and health, I also have another perspective.
For the last seven years, our research team has watched how teenagers use their phones each day. And we have concluded that when it comes to cellphones, parents often worry about the wrong things.
More than 80 percent of adolescents in the United States now own a cellphone, and 1 in 4 teens report being on their phone “almost constantly.” And when they’re on their phones, they are mostly online.
Early on, parents’ fears about online activities focused on who their children might meet in cyberspace, especially predators. As cellphones became more ubiquitous, parents started worrying their kids were spending too much time on their devices, missing out on opportunities to develop social skills, sleep and learn.
But our research and the research of others have found that many adult fears are not supported by science.
For example, most kids use cellphones to communicate with friends and family members, not strangers. Most teenagers’ text messages concern everyday topics and are neutral or positive in content.
Online communication also can carry benefits versus risks. One study found children with strong early relationships communicated more frequently online and reported closer, more cohesive offline friendships. Shared online activities between parents and children are associated with better-quality relationships. And, for those young people headed off to college, mobile phones have been shown to keep college students more closely connected with their parents during this transition.
For the most part, studies suggest children who experience problems in their “online” lives are the same ones who struggle offline. For example, young people solicited by strangers online are more likely to struggle with substance use or behavioral problems.
Parents rightly worry about the dangerous practice of texting while driving – although adults appear to do this as often as teens. Early evidence also links time online to obesity, a matter worth investigating.
Like other parents, I also worry that ubiquitous cellphones increases the potential for cyberbullying. Children bullied online face increased risk for depression and other negative outcomes, and mobile phones offer bullies new tools. But cyberbullying is still less common than traditional bullying and has not created large numbers of new victims; more than 90 percent of those bullied online are also bullied offline.
So far, the clearest concern involves sleep. Most teens report sending text messages after dark, and 4 of 5 mobile phone-owning teens report sleeping with phones by their bedside or under their pillows. Not surprisingly, sending text messages after “lights out” leads to less sleep and next-day fatigue. Light emitted by screens also interferes with falling asleep and with deep sleep, critical for adolescents’ still-growing brains and bodies. Limiting device usage after dark could help ensure devices are not stealing our kids’ sleep.
We still have much to learn about how mobile devices are influencing this generation of “digital natives,” and parents and scientists need to move quickly to keep pace. But for now, parents may take comfort in this: Sleep aside, the evidence is weak that being “constantly connected” is harming teens. Instead, adolescents’ online lives seem to closely mirror their offline struggles and strengths.
As for my 5-year-old’s cellphone request, I told him we would need to wait until at least half of his friends had one. According to a recent news report, that will be next year, in first grade.
Candice Odgers is an associate professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.