Phased introductions to smartphones will help kids more than bans

“Get phones out of schools.” “Social media is toxic for teenagers.”

Messages like these are flying around the globe and seem to have reached a zenith of late. In the UK, concern over harms from social media and screen time has led to the Smartphone Free Childhood campaign and a government crackdown on smartphone use in schools. Ministers are even considering banning the sale of smartphones to under-16s. Meanwhile, in the US, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy this week called for cigarette-style warning labels on social media platforms.

More than 40 per cent of US children have a smartphone by the age of 10, and the concern is that excess screen use can lead to health problems, including obesity, sleep disturbances, depression and anxiety.

Some studies certainly demonstrate this link. However, as we explain in our feature “The truth about social media and screen time’s impact on young people”, the evidence of widespread harms to children from screen time isn’t as strong or clear-cut as some make it out to be.

While we figure out the details, we must protect children – particularly those most vulnerable to the negative effects of smartphone use and social media. But taking it away completely is a misstep.

A smarter way forward would be to give children access, even from a young age, but in a controlled and considered manner.

Imagine what a smartphone utopia would look like. It would be phased – you wouldn’t give kids access to the entire internet at first, you would let them into walled gardens, much like children’s TV channels do.

In such a world, you would allow limited messaging with strict moderation that relaxes with age. Systems would grant parents access that decreases over time. All this would be coupled with ongoing digital literacy classes.

Smartphones, social media and screens are here to stay in our children’s lives, no matter how many warning labels are put in place. Now is the time to think seriously about how to provide the tools they need to navigate the reality of growing up online.


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