Why Your Teenager Might Be Happier Without a Smartphone

smart phone

My recently-graduated son just texted me from his cousin’s phone during their senior trip to San Diego: “Hey this is Hans. I went surfing with my phone. It might survive, but probably not. I’m so sorry.”

I read his text, laughed out loud, and went to Ebay where I quickly found a replacement. My reaction to Hansie’s drowned phone wouldn’t have been quite as carefree if he’d ruined or cracked the screen of a $300 phone, but his sturdy red phone served him well for three years and $16.73 to replace it felt perfectly reasonable. Our phone carrier’s store doesn’t even sell basic phones anymore—we’re starting to feel like rebels.

A handful of kids we know are still hanging on to the old phones. Most of them own the same model—a little LG slider. It’s a better phone than you might think. It receives texts, calls, and even photos (as long as it’s not a group text) just like its fancier cousins. It also holds lists and a handy little calendar where Hansie notes every appointment and assignment, game and party in his impossibly busy life. As a bonus, those phones are practically indestructible. The screens never break, they can be dropped repeatedly, and even submerged in water—just not for the length of a surfing outing.

Trust me: I don’t think you’re a bad parent if you buy your kid an iPhone. You’re not a bad kid if you’re using one. Some of my favorite teenagers on earth own smartphones and use them responsibly. But honestly, I think they’re a rare breed. These kids have tremendous impulse control and extraordinary parents. I think if everyone at my house had iPhones and iPads and iTouches and iEverything, I’d be constantly scolding and monitoring and sending them outside to play. I think we’d talk less, tackle fewer projects, and spend too much time watching other people’s lives.

My kids will tell you we’re not strict parents, and we have much more laughter than rules at our house. You might think my high-school-aged boys are constantly begging for an upgrade from their basic phones. Instead, they thank us over and over for their little red phones. Why? They’ve seen too many kids lose themselves to their phones. Friends who used to talk and throw a frisbee during the lunch hour are now obsessed with their Twitter feed and how many likes they’ve received on Instagram.

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People seem to think we’re extremists when they hear my kids don’t own any devices beyond basic phones. In truth, we still spend too much time looking at screens. Thanks, or no thanks, to Amazon and Netflix, my younger kids have read fewer books and seen far more movies and television shows than their older siblings. They’ve all spent hours and hours on TED talks, on Khan Academy learning math and computer programming, and just watching funny YouTube videos. My four younger kids regularly grab my phone to check Instagram, play Angry Birds, or study French and German on Duolingo. And you know what? One smartphone is enough for the five of us.

It seems to me that we might be falling into the same trap as some of our phone-using predecessors of the early twentieth century. They were first to have telephones installed in their homes, and they used this great convenience to spend hours on end listening to calls intended for their neighbors. Will we one day make the same realization that we are neglecting our own lives to be spectators to others’ lives?

As much as possible, I want to gift my kids with a creative, active life. And they agree. Maybe it’s because we know ourselves. Our family trees on both sides are full of alcoholics and philanderers. We know we are prone to addictions; we know we need to be careful.  Even my 11-year-old, with her happy life of ballet and baking, cello and sewing and swimming, knows she needs to limit her time on Instagram for her own contentment. If she looks at it daily, she starts to feel like the only little girl in the world who hasn’t eaten lunch at an American Girl Doll Store. Let’s face it: don’t we all suffer from a bit of Instagram envy from time to time?

A fair amount of high-schoolers can handle a smartphone’s constant access to social media, but those forums can be especially dangerous for adolescents. Why, during the most vulnerable, insecure years of our children’s lives, would we put a device in their hands that allows them to compare themselves to everyone else nearly every minute of the day?  Thanks to social media, kids can see every party they weren’t invited to and every girl who racks up 500 likes on her selfie. I’d rather let my kids remain blissfully unaware of the latest swimsuit pic and rocking party.

I follow several of my kids’ friends on Instagram and even more of them follow my feed. While most of the older teens offer happy, interesting updates, the majority of younger kids (with a few lovely exceptions) seem to be screaming, “Like me, like me, like me!”

My 13-year-old tells me several of his classmates talk about the latest Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter post all day long. I know his lack of a phone leaves him out of the loop, but it’s a loop he’s glad to be out of. He spends plenty of time with friends who appreciate him simply for himself and he’s too happy to worry about how other kids spent their weekend. Besides, studies confirm, kids who are socially precocious at 13 deal with serious consequences later. That pattern has held true for every one of my children—they aren’t the cool kids in junior high, but the interpersonal skills they develop at home and with trusted friends pay off in high school.

It’s hard enough for adults to manage a smartphone, but for kids with developing brains, those constant distractions can be dangerous. One child might be ready to own a smartphone at 16, but will his younger sibling have the same impulse control when he gets to the same age? It’s easier to make a rule for the entire family rather than make one child feel singled out.

Our friend’s son recently confessed a pornography addiction to his parents. Since he was primarily accessing porn on his phone, the boy willingly relinquished his iPhone to his parents. His mother told me she desperately wishes she’d never given him a smartphone in the first place. In this boy’s case, without a smartphone he might have avoided a pornography addiction. For many other kids, holding off on buying a smartphone might help them concentrate on schoolwork, improve face to face social skills, or simply make better use of time.  Sure, you can block websites and even the Internet on a smartphone, but people can text pornographic images to your child any time. My boys are often involved in group texts with dozens of people. Images are sent during those conversations, but their “dumb“ phones translate them into web links (which they could look up, but they never bother).

Many times it’s during a group text that someone sends a shocking image.  This just happened in a group text of over 200 kids who were planning a senior prank. One kid posted the sort of selfie no one wanted to see. For the kids with smartphones, the image popped right up, but the kids with basic phones only saw the text of a web link. Additionally, kids with basic phones are simply putting less of their lives on the internet, and that lack of sharing protects them.

As I said before, I promise I’m not judging anyone who hands his or her kids the latest iPhone. Several of my favorite teens carry one in their pocket. But if you buy your teens little red flip phones, I promise they won’t be alone. And they’ll probably thank you for it.

QUESTION: How have your children been affected by smartphones? What are your family’s policies regarding smartphone use?

CHALLENGE: Talk with your children about the advantages and disadvantages of using smartphones. If appropriate, set goals to help each other make positive changes in your mobile phone use.

Edited by Sarah Monson and Amanda Lewis.
Image from FreeDigitalPhotos/cooldesign. Graphics by Anna Jenkins.
Originally published on July 23, 2015.