10 Reasons Parents Cave And Give Kids Smartphones

May 5, 2024

Why do strong parents allow smartphones to win the battle in their homes?

I recently received a phone call from a mom of three teens who had attended one of my Kids’ Brains and Screens workshops. We spoke for an hour. In desperation, she admitted that the biggest parenting mistake she’d made to date was giving her kids smartphones in 8th grade. She said that when her kids were in elementary school, she and her husband had agreed to wait till the end of high school to hand out smartphones. But they ended up giving them earlier. She said her kids were upset over group texts and social media, and after reviewing their content, she discovered that her children were being exposed to pornography regularly. She shared how things had gone from bad to worse in her home and how she and her husband had spent the last year trying to undo that one big mistake. “I don’t know why I caved in and gave my kids smartphones in the first place,” she stated. 

Unfortunately, this regret is common. Parents of adolescents will report that the decision to give a smartphone is the one thing they would go back and change if they could go back in time. The truth is, 8th grade is not a smart age for a smartphone—and neither is the rest of adolescence—but it is the grade most parents cave. Why do strong parents allow smartphones to win the battle in their homes? In my experience over the past eight years of working with families, there are many ways to get tripped up by the smartphone decision. Here are a few of the many reasons why parents cave:

1. Lack of education about the science and risks. 

“It’s not that big of a deal; smartphones can’t really hurt my kids.”

The biggest reason parents cave is because they don’t know what they don’t know about the science and risks behind adolescent screen use. Smartphone use is causing a mental health crisis. Parents don’t understand the neuroscience of child brain development and the high risks behind the content their kids will see. However, most parents are not neuroscientists. If you don’t understand basic facts about adolescent brain development and the dopamine addiction risk, you will likely cave. You will incorrectly assume that your teen’s brain is as developed as an adult brain, leading you to think that the teen smartphone decision is just another parenting decision with lots of opinions and emotional hype. Because parents use smartphones differently than teens, they don’t always understand the layers of harmful use specific to teens. Education is critical for success when making life-changing decisions such as allowing smartphones for teenagers.

Once you understand the risks vs benefits ratio, your decision will be easy and ironclad. 

2. Cultural pressure gets the best of us; we are scared not to belong.

“Everyone else is giving in. I didn’t realize I could say no.”

The herd mentality is ingrained in human nature as a survival instinct. Sticking with the larger group historically meant better chances of finding food and safety. Being part of the herd was and remains a crucial survival strategy. But we don’t have to go along with the herd if it is heading the wrong way. You have permission to say no to cultural trends that are not good for your kids. 

Don’t be the parent who makes decisions based on what the crowd is doing. Look what happened with smoking, which was once marketed as healthy. It takes a leader to break out of harmful group habits. 

3. We can’t overcome our anchoring biases.

“Thirteen is the age of digital maturity because that is the age listed on social media platforms.” 

The first thing we hear—our anchoring bias—is tough to change, even if it is a myth. Our brain doesn’t want to expend energy to confront and change our bias. We don’t think twice because it takes energy, and it is hard to think twice. 

The myth about the age of 13 is an excellent example of how this anchoring bias works. Most parents believe that 13 is the recommended age for a smartphone because we see that age listed as the minimum age requirement for social media accounts. Parents believe this age requirement is like movie and video game ratings, meaning that 13-year-olds should be mature enough to handle the content that social media companies allow. But this is not true. The fact is, the age of 13 was set by the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) before social media was even invented—four years before Facebook and seven years before the iPhone. The law determined that no online site could collect data and personal information from children under 13 without a parent’s consent. This law had nothing to do with maturity—it was only about collecting personal data from kids. A recent British study shows that puberty is a sensitive period for harm from social media. 

This is a perfect example of how dangerous an anchoring bias can be and how we must work hard to learn the truth behind the influences on our parenting decisions. Thirteen is not the age of online maturity; if every parent could see past this anchoring bias, the digital teen world would be very different. 

When families hear the ScreenStrong message early, they have a much easier time making healthier choices for their teens around tech.

3. Parental peer pressure and convenience.

“When are you getting a smartphone for your kids?” our friends ask.

The question is never, “Are you getting a phone?” It is, “When are you getting one?” Peer pressure from other parents is a strong driving force behind many of our parenting decisions. Like our middle school kids, we are worried about being judged by our peers. Parents fear their kids will fall behind if they don’t do what other parents do, but this is a mistake. As parents, we also don’t want to feel pressure from our friends, and we don’t want to be criticized. 

Coupling parent peer pressure with the convenience factor—being able to track your kids easily and call them—is more than most parents can handle. Your friends are persuasive and may cause you to cave even when you know better. 

Just because your well-meaning friends are telling you to jump off the smartphone cliff, don’t.

4. We fail to think about alternatives.

“I never thought about not giving them a smartphone; I never looked into other options.”

Some things become so commonplace that we stop thinking about the reasons behind them. This reminds me of a story about a family tradition. When a daughter asked her mom why they cut the tip off the roast before they cooked it, the mom explained that it was what Grandma always did. When they asked Grandma why she did it, she explained it was because her pot was too small years ago! The family continued the habit even though they had bigger pans. This is an example of how we continue following norms without questioning why. 

When we enter the smartphone decision, we first think about setting up parental controls and setting limits. Rarely do we wonder if we should even give a smartphone in the first place. It takes logic to go against the way things have always been done. Leave emotion out; look at this decision from different angles and consider all available options. A basic phone is always better than a smartphone for teenagers of any age. 

Less is more when it comes to phones for teens. 



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