Should you buy your tween a smartphone? An expert weighs in

Linda Charmaraman

Your 11-year-old is begging for a smartphone for the holidays. It would allow her to contact you quickly if she’s at a friend’s and needs to be picked up, she could FaceTime with her grandmother on the other side of the country, and all her friends have one.

But you’re worried about her connecting with people she shouldn’t, being bullied online, or becoming as addicted to her smartphone as you are.

Should you add a smartphone to your shopping list, or should you play the Grinch?

As a researcher who studies youth, media, and wellbeing--and as the mother of a 7-year-old--this is a question friends often ask me. I tell them that whether and when to buy your child a smartphone is not an easy decision, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer even for siblings in the same household. (This is not usually what they want to hear.) Then I tell them to consider the following.

When we talk about smartphones, we’re often talking about social media. True, they aren’t one and the same; it’s possible your child wants a smartphone only so they can text with their friends. But it’s more likely that they also want access to Instagram or Snapchat. (Federal law mandates that social media companies require their users to be at least 13 years old or have parental consent if younger, but according to the Pew Research Center, 38% of 12-year-olds in the U.S. are using online social networks.) So it’s important to consider the consequences of them joining social media in particular.

First, think about your child’s age. My team’s research has found that youth who were 10 years old or younger when they first joined social media reported more fear of missing out and were more likely to experience sexual harassment and unsympathetic online behavior than those who joined social media when they were older.

These “youngest initiators” were more likely to have someone in their network that their parents would disapprove of, and they reported more digital addiction behaviors, including higher levels of problematic digital technology use (like constantly checking their phones), more frequent checking of social media, and substantially less sleep.

This suggests that it makes a difference whether your child starts using social media at age 10 versus age 12. It may be worth considering holding off a year or two, if you can.

Next, consider the negatives and the positives, and how they might play into your child’s personality. Their capacity to self-regulate and withstand peer pressure will have a large effect on their experience of social media.

For example, will they be able to recognize why it’s a good idea to not have access to a phone at bedtime? Will they understand that certain kinds of social media posts are not healthy or appropriate, even if everyone else is posting them?

My team’s research found that 21 percent of adolescents reported they had felt “down” about themselves after viewing social media. Out of those, 52 percent attributed the dissatisfaction to body image issues; girls, those with large online peer networks, those who checked their social media frequently, and those who followed celebrities were particularly vulnerable.

Consider whether your child’s individual personality might make them more susceptible to these types of issues.

Don’t forget, though, that social media usage can have positive effects, too. It can widen your child’s social networks, help them maintain ties to faraway friends, and promote civic engagement and social awareness.

Over half of the respondents in our study reported giving and receiving social and emotional support online--especially about issues related to school, friends, relationships, and worries. Kids who can’t find the type of community they need in person may benefit from finding that community online.

Finally, recognize that giving your child a smartphone will require a commitment on your part to having ongoing conversations about how to use it in a healthy way.

My team has hosted workshops for middle school students that teach them about social media’s impact on their lives and the wellbeing of others, and we’ve been impressed by the creative solutions they suggested to reduce today’s fixation on technology. They are open to being educated about its risks and benefits, and as a parent, you’re in a good position to be in an ongoing dialogue with them about it.

For example, don’t hesitate to check who your child is connected to on social media, and let them know that you’ll be checking. If you see a contact that you question, it may be an opportunity to have a conversation about how to handle a difficult friendship or relationship issue, or about adding strangers, YouTube influencers, or celebrities.

Just like you wouldn’t give your child the keys to a car for the first time and let them drive away without any practice, you’ll need to be there to teach them how to use social media in a healthy way. As with driving, you’ll need to sit in the passenger seat and nudge them to adjust their technique until they get it right.

Together, you can set rules and shared expectations that promote your child’s autonomy while safeguarding them from risks. Keep that in mind as you make your holiday list and check it twice.

Linda Charmaraman is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women who directs the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab. She conducts research funded by an NIH grant to determine the long-term health and wellbeing effects of smartphone use, social media use and gaming on middle school students.