On Kids and Smartphones

Not long ago, my kids’ school asked me to give a talk to middle school students and their parents about smartphones. I’ve written extensively on the intersection of technology and society in both my books and New Yorker articles, but the specific issue of young people and phones is one I’ve only tackled on a small number of occasions (e.g., here and here). This invited lecture therefore provided me a great opportunity to bring myself up to speed on the research relevant to this topic.

I was fascinated by what I discovered.

In my talk, I ended up not only summarizing the current state-of-the-art thinking about kids and phones, but also diving into the history of this literature, including how it got started, evolved, adjusted to criticism, and, over the last handful of years, ultimately coalesced around a rough consensus.

Assuming that other people might find this story interesting, I recorded a version of this talk for Episode 246 of my podcast, Deep Questions. Earlier today, I also released it as a standalone video. If you’re concerned, or even just interested, in what researchers currently believe to be true about the dangers involved in giving a phone to a kid before they’re ready, I humbly suggest watching my presentation.

In the meantime, I thought it might be useful to summarize a few of the more interesting observations that I uncovered:

  • Concern that young people were becoming more anxious, and that smartphones might be playing a role, began to bubble up among mental health professionals and educators starting around 2012. It was, as much as anything else, Jean Twenge’s 2017 cover story for The Atlantic, titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, that subsequently shoved this concern into the broader cultural conversation.
  • Between 2017 and 2020, a period I call The Data Wars, there were many back-and-forth fights in the research literature, in which harms would be identified, followed by critics pushing back and arguing that the harms were exaggerated, followed then by responses to these critiques. This was normal and healthy: exactly the empirical thrust and parry you want to see in the early stages of an emerging scientific hypothesis.
  • Over the last few years, a rough consensus has emerged that there really are significant harms in giving young people unrestricted access to the internet through smartphones. This is particularly true for pre-pubescent girls. This consensus arose in part because the main critiques raised during The Data Wars were resoundingly answered, and because, more recently, multiple independent threads of inquiry (including natural experiments, randomized controlled trials, and self-report data) all pointed toward the same indications of harm.
  • The research community concerned about these issues are converging on the idea that the safe age to give a kid unrestricted access to a smartphone is 16. (The Surgeon General recently suggested something similar.)
  • You might guess that the middle school students who attended my talk balked at this conclusion, but reality is more complicated. They didn’t fully embrace my presentation, but they didn’t reject it either. Many professed to recognize the harms of unrestricted internet access at their age and are wary about it. (My oldest son, by contrast, who is 10, is decidedly not happy with me for spreading these vile lies at his school.)

This is clearly a fascinating and complicated topic that seems to be rapidly evolving. If you’re struggling with these developments, I hope you find my talk somewhat useful. I’m convinced that our culture will eventually adapt to these issues. Ten years from now, there won’t be much debate about what’s appropriate when it comes to kids and these technologies. Until then, however, we’re all sort of on our own, so the more we know, the better off we’ll be.

16 thoughts on “On Kids and Smartphones”

  1. I find it rather hilarious that your 10 year old son is pissed at you for giving this talk at his school.

    Perhaps in a dozen years from now he’ll look at you and say, “you know dad you were right about everything you said at that talk.” I am betting he will likely be a better person because of it.

    • In the meantime your son might imagine you wrecked his social life. Or that other kids may tease him, look at him strangely, or at least regard him as the kid whose crazy dad gave that talk on cell phones. 🙃

    • I guess that is the case with many „NOs“ kids get or should get. But I find that parents find it more and more difficult to say “no” to their kids. I always said, I am not their friend, my job is to educate them. And “no” is part of education.

  2. Living in a country where virtually every child is given a personal smartphone when entering the first grade, I’ve seen a couple of heartening things lately:

    (1) a citizen’s initiative to allow schools to ban smartphones (see a very interesting article & podcast here: https://yle.fi/a/74-20029295)

    (2) today, when I went to the cell phone store to try to replace my (lost) dumb phone with another dumb phone, the salesperson, a 20-year-old, said that they are getting more and more young dumb phone customers, that she herself is considering getting rid of her smartphone when she no longer works at that store, and that she does not want to give her future children devices.

  3. Our solution for our 10 year old (now 11) is an Apple watch. Only family members can contact him, he still gets a digital calendar and reminders, and he can track his workouts for swim team. But there’s no social media and no group text chats (where other kids particularly seem to be behaving the worst).

  4. hi
    have you thought about how badly the same issue affects elderly ,aged or retired people or is there any research concerning them?

    • That is a great suggestion! Have a father-in-law that is obsessed with Facebook and YouTube videos – living in a real echo-chamber.

  5. You are an interesting personality. You are both a computer science professor and partially against technology (I don’t mean it in a bad way). But I want to ask: How can we use these technologies in the most efficient way? By the way, I read your book “Deep Work” and “Digital Minimalism”. You have touched on these issues in your book, but I have seen or think that the solutions are not very clear.

  6. I’ve been a long-time follower of your work, and your time-blocking allowed me to successfully work full-time, complete an M.A. in 2 years and have another baby (I have 4 kids) all while doing a dumpster fire called work-from-home/homeschool during a pandemic. Of all the things that you’re spot on about, this is the one that I think is the MOST important for parents. In 2006 when my husband and I got married, we declared our future kids wouldn’t have a cell phone until they were at least 16. That was way before they are what they are now even. Everyone thought we were crazy. Now we have screen-free weekdays (video games and iPad only on weekends), and no unfettered internet access. So far our experiment has made us weird. But we have kids who play outside, play games with each other, chat with me while I make dinner, and overall haven’t grown two heads or become social outcasts. Of course all of their friends have cell phones, iPad’s in their rooms, TikTok accounts, etc… but our kids do kid things and really enjoy it. The only caveat is that our son would really like to play more video games so he grumbles about that a bit. Incidentally, we don’t permit any games that connect to the Internet, so they’re more like the ones I had in the 90’s to some degree. During the summer we let them FaceTime with friends in the main living area so we can monitor what they’re doing. I did recently get my son a subscription to The Athletic after I heard you mention it on the podcast and he and my husband have had some great conversations about articles they read. Overall, we’re pretty digitally minimal over here.

    Anyway… I don’t really have a point in my comment since I’ve never commented on your posts before other than I support your viewpoint on this.

    P.S. I’m currently working on transforming a shed into a deep work HQ.

    • It’s disappointing that schools and parents have so quickly surrendered to the supposed inevitability of students having smartphones. School is for learning, and front-office phones have always been available for emergencies. “No phones at school” should be a commonsense, universal rule – only it’s not, because much like physicians who smoked cigarettes in the 1930s, screen-addicted adults over-sympathize with their kids’ FOMO.

      If we don’t protect kids from one of the most damaging, addictive habits of the past century (the squandering of their lives on passive, screen-based amusements), then what are we here for? It’s our job to create a culture where every family member enthusiastically eschews the bad and runs toward the good. For this to happen, we have to 1) spend enough time with our kids that we, not their peers, are their reference point for moral values and norms, 2) develop (and model!) our own personal philosophy regarding technology, and 3) provide an enticing positive vision for a more fulfilling life (a life of hobbies, reading, patience, quiet time, and in-person fellowship).

      Raising kids thoughtfully is a demanding job, but what could be more important? We cannot simply throw up our hands and let a culture of ephemeral, soulless screen-blips shape the next generation.

  7. Hi,

    That was a really interesting presentation – thanks!

    I’m going to try and get my kids to watch the video you shared… Do you have anything recorded for a young (teen/tween) audience? The video you share is more targeting parents and grown-ups.

    I’m also sharing your video with our school administration… Cell phones have been a huge issue in the middle school.

  8. Cal, in the past I thought your recommended age was 18 for a smart phone. Also, don’t you recommend no social media at any age? I could have misunderstood. Thanks

  9. Smart phones are a scourge. Especially for kids. My 13 year old has a LightphoneII. It’s overpriced hardware but it’s where we are. She can text and call and that’s about it. There is a podcast option too. She doesn’t care. She leaves it home half the time. Also, my spouse started a long term substitute position teaching Jr High math at her school. Phones are a problem in the math class. Depending on policy and enforcement, the kids are constantly on them; when they aren’t painting their nails. I can’t believe humanity has unleashed this weaponized delivery of the armpit of the internet directly to our pockets. And it’s been normalized. Whoa to the kids! Won’t someone please think of the children?!! Good luck kids!

  10. Thank you for this interesting presentation! I think kids should have smartphones to get in touch with their parents easily in an emergency and use them as a learning tool. But it’s important to regulate smartphone use because too much time on a device can affect children’s health and well-being.

  11. Oh, look at you, the all-knowing tech guru! Sharing your oh-so-valuable insights with the unwashed masses about smartphones and kids. Who needs experts when we’ve got the great Cal Newport enlightening us with his pearls of wisdom? I’m sure the middle schoolers were just hanging onto your every word about smartphone dangers while secretly texting under their desks. And kudos to you for saving the world one podcast episode at a time. Just remember, us regular folks might not be as intellectually gifted as you, Professor Newport!

  12. While I understand this article is about teens, when are we going to have a serious conversation about the elephant in the room – how bad smartphones are for EVERYONE?

    Clearly, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek because I know that conversation is NOT coming. There’s way too much money at stake, and more importantly, the addictions to these devices (the hardware, operating systems, apps, cameras, etc.) have the adults deflecting these needed conversations about themselves in favor of a pithy exchange about the dangers of smartphones to teens. It’s just a diversion to keep us from the tackling the essentials.


Leave a Comment