4 Phone Rules Kids Desperately Need

Between my job as an education editor and raising a toddler, I seek out a lot of content about kids from people who know more than me. I’ve noticed that usually experts leave a lot of wiggle room with what they’re sharing or recommending. “Every family is different,” “If this doesn’t resonate with you, that’s OK!” or “This isn’t for everyone,” that kind of thing. But a few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast where Dr. Jonathan Haidt, an expert on youth anxiety and the author of The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, shared four guidelines on phones for kids.

And let me tell you: He did not mince words.

It was a little surprising to hear such a firm stance, but I also deeply appreciated it. As a middle school teacher, I watched the emergence of smartphones in the classroom over a span of 11 years. And during this time, I think anyone in education—even those working in elementary schools—will tell you what a problem phones have become. Teachers can’t compete. Administrators struggle with addressing online bullying and harassment. Parents feel pressured and hopeless to roll back what’s been done. And the kids are not OK.

We were lucky enough to chat with Dr. Haidt’s chief researcher Zach Rausch, Associate Research Scientist at New York University, with some questions about Dr. Haidt’s work, the implications for kids and schools, and what parents and teachers can do. Check out what he had to say.

Teachers have been blowing the whistle for years that smartphones are harming kids. How has “The Great Rewiring” affected girls and boys differently? 

Zach Rausch: “The Great Rewiring” has affected all of our children, but research consistently shows that social media harms girls more than boys. On average, girls spend more time on social media platforms than boys and prefer visually oriented platforms like Instagram and TikTok, which are much worse for social comparison than text-based platforms like Reddit. There are many other ways that social media platforms uniquely harm girls, including exacerbated relational aggression and online predation. To get a sense of the scale of harm, Arturo Bejar (a whistleblower from Facebook) revealed that just about one in seven 13-to-15-year-old children have received an unwanted sexual solicitation on Instagram in the last seven days. 

Now, to better understand why girls and boys have been impacted differently, we need to look at some fundamental psychological differences between them (on average). Although girls and boys are motivated by agency (the desire to stand out and compete) and communion (the desire to develop a sense of belonging to a group) from an early age, there emerges a gender difference: Boys choose more agency activities, and girls choose more communion activities. This helps us understand why girls moved their social lives more substantially onto social media platforms while boys moved more substantially toward online video games. 

Social media appeals to the desire for communion, while online video games appeal to the desire for agency. In both cases, as teen boys and girls moved their social lives onto these new online platforms, their rates of loneliness, uselessness, and meaninglessness surged upwards. These platforms sell connection and agency but ultimately provide little of it. 

What guidelines would you recommend parents and schools across the country adopt? 

ZR: The most important idea in the book is that parents and teens are stuck in a social trap. No teenage girl wants to be the only one who is not on Instagram. No teenage boy wants to be the only one who cannot play Fortnite. No parent wants to make their child feel socially isolated. Even if kids do not enjoy being on these platforms, being connected with their friends is enough to keep them there. Therefore, we need to help both parents and teens break out of this trap.

And in the book, we recommend four “new norms” that can help us do this. 

Four “new norms” for kids and phones:

  1. No smartphones before high school. (Flip phones are fine.) 
  2. No social media until age 16. 
  3. Schools should ban phones during the entire school day. Just put them into a phone locker or Yondr pouch.
  4. Finally, we need to give our kids more independence, freedom, and responsibility to play or hang out with one another on their own in the real world, just as most of us did when we were their age. 

If your kids are in elementary school, you can get ahead of this now by setting good habits and coordinating with other parents to agree on the age limits around the phone and social media use. 

If you’ve already given your kids smartphones and social media, don’t despair. There’s still a lot you can do. The most important thing we can do is help provide our children with structure around their screen time usage. For example, we can set a policy of no phones in the bedroom at night and no phone use during meals. 

We also want to help give young people more time with one another in the real world. Arranging playdates or encouraging older teens to meet up with friends on their own will go a long way in bolstering their mental health. Independence and real-world interactions are just as important as limiting time on phones. 

For teachers and parents who want their schools to go phone-free, what statistics or talking points do you think are most powerful to bring to a school, PTA, or school board? 

ZR: AnxiousGeneration.com is our main hub for resources related to the Anxious Generation. Here, educators and parents can find an abundance of resources to support change in their community, including action guides, pre-written text and emails to send to like-minded individuals, and a petition for schools to go phone-free and play-full. 

Should parents and teachers be hopeful that the next generation of kids will have a healthier relationship with phones and social media? 

ZR: There are many reasons to have hope. 

First, the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. It really resonates with parents, teachers, educators, and young people; and we are hearing directly from them how important this issue is. 

The biggest opponent we are facing is not that parents disagree with us—it is that so many feel hopeless. Our goal is to show that there really is a lot we can do, especially if we act together. 

As I mentioned before, parents and teens are stuck in a trap where we all use platforms we don’t necessarily like because everyone else is using them. And this is precisely why we need to coordinate together to delay smartphones and social media. We need to help break our kids out of this trap and free the Anxious Generation.

A final note for teachers and parents:

We’re so grateful for Dr. Haidt’s work and for Zach Rausch’s time in answering our questions. With so much ambiguity in discussions about cell phone guidelines for teens and tweens, it’s reassuring to have clarity—clarity that doesn’t blame or shame but equips us to do better.

We’ve long recognized the escalating crisis that smartphones pose in our schools and homes. The challenges might seem intimidating, but with collective action on behalf of our kids, we can empower the next generation with healthier habits and more meaningful, real-world interactions. Like Rausch says, it’s not too late.

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