Nord Anglia Education
Nord Anglia
June 17, 2024

From Resignation To Reclamation: A Simple, Four-Point Plan For Parents To Support Healthy Smartphone Use

INSIGHTS - Healthy Smartphone Use - INSIGHTS - Healthy Smartphone Use
From Resignation To Reclamation: A Simple, Four-Point Plan For Parents To Support Healthy Smartphone Use
When Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, visits college campuses—which he does a lot—he talks to young people about loneliness, technology use, and their hopes for the future. What he’s seeing and hearing worries him.

Dining halls are a lot quieter than they used to be, with kids on laptops or phones and rarely talking to each other. Students tell him that they want to connect with other students more, but it feels intrusive: it’s hard to interrupt someone watching a show on Netflix, working on a laptop, or seemingly engrossed in a podcast or TikTok. He asks every young person he meets whether they or anyone they know has struck a good balance between online life and real life. No one has said yes yet.


“The problem is that these platforms are not designed for balance,” Murthy told me. “They are built for maximum engagement.” Concern about social media’s impact on kids is not new. But it’s gaining remarkable speed. The data showing alarmingly high rates of anxiety and depression in young people isn’t abstract and distant anymore; everyone knows someone who is suffering, in their own family or close to it. New research reveals that Covid was not the only cause of learning loss: globally, kids started performing worse on major international tests like PISA starting around 2012—around the time the majority of young people acquired smartphones.


And people like Murthy are using their perches to take on Big Tech. In May 2023, he issued a public health advisory warning around social media use and children. “The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids?’ The answer is that we don't have enough evidence to say it's safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” he said at the time. Jacob Rosch, Head of Educational Technology at Nord Anglia’s Collège du Léman in Switzerland, has noted a change from parents in recent years, to being more careful around phone use. “I get the sense the tide is turning,” he said. “They aren’t giving their kids unmonitored access to the internet like they used to.”


The Anxious Generation?


The most strident call to arms is coming from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, professor at NYU’s business school, and author of the recently released The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.


Haidt makes a compelling case that, starting in about 2010s, a play-based childhood was replaced with a phone-based one, the results of which has been a dramatic rise in mental health problems that is both global and enduring. The rewiring of childhood has happened by “designing a firehose of addictive content that entered through kids’ eyes and ears”. Because kids are spending five to nine hours a day on their phones, they’re not doing the things they need to do grow up to be healthy and happy citizens.


“Childhood is more solitary than it's ever been in human history and the results are not good,” he told Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology at a talk in San Francisco in April. His message to parents: we have overprotected our children in the real world and under protected them online. Haidt is surprisingly optimistic. He thinks we are reaching a tipping point—not because Big Tech has been humbled, but because everyone wants change. “Almost all the parents hate what’s going on. All the teachers and heads of school and principals hate what’s going on. Guess what? Gen Z hates what’s going on. They see it—they are not in denial. They see that they are trapped,” he said.


When there is widespread agreement that things need to change but fear around changing it, change can happen.
Haidt offers a four-point plan to turn things around:

  1. Don’t give children smartphones until high school. Give them flip phones instead. “Millennials had them and they were fine,” he said.
  2. Don’t let kids have social media until 16. The only reason the age requirement for a new account is 13 is because a Congressman (now Senator) set it at 16 and lobbyists watered it down to 13.
  3. Ban phones in schools. “This provides the biggest bang for your buck,” he says.
  4. Help kids rediscover play, including letting then play outside, unsupervised.


To many parents, these measures will feel extreme. Our kids already have phones; we don’t have the energy to start a mass movement; and while rediscovering play sounds wholesome and brilliant, it also feels unrealistic.


Rosch agrees. “I wish it was as simple as a blanket ban on phones for a certain age. It’s a lot more complicated than that.” No one really knows, he said. But everyone’s trying to figure it out. Collège du Léman regularly surveys students about their technology use and Rosch organises student-led workshops. Students take the data and make slides including their thoughts and reactions. “They live in this world, so they are not surprised by the data."

INSIGHTS - Healthy Smartphone Use - INSIGHTS - Healthy Smartphone Use


A Better Four-Point Plan

Murthy offers a more compelling four-point plan on how to shield kids from the worst effects of social media: Protect the four things kids need most to develop well: sleep, learning, in-person connection and physical activity (if you like acronyms, it spells SLIP).


Sleep: Rather than ban phones altogether, ban phones in bedrooms. No devices after 9 pm, period. A meta-analysis of 20 cross-sectional studies of children aged 6-19 years old revealed a strong association between bedtime access to and use of media devices and inadequate sleep quantity and quality The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per night and teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per night for optimal health.

Learning: Ban phones in school. Research shows that removing smartphones can improve student test scores. The UK government passed legislation to do this in 2024. Expect more countries to follow (According to a UNESCO report on education systems in roughly 200 countries, about one-quarter have enacted comparable restrictions).

In-person connection: Encourage kids to spend time together device-free. This is hard, especially for older teens. Suggest ideas (cooking dinner with music on), or watching a movie without texting, or walking the dog and leaving devices at home. Model device free dinners, and bigger family, church or community gatherings where phone-use is actively discouraged.

Physical activity: Finally, make sure kids get exercise. Ride a bike, play tennis, go for a walk or a run, play soccer or basketball with friends. Zumba, line dance, hip hop; whatever it takes to get moving. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to protect both body and mind.


To be sure, not everyone buys Haidt’s arguments. Candice Odgers, the associate dean for research and a professor of psychological science and informatics at the University of California, Irvine, argued in Nature that Haidt’s central premise that digital technologies are rewiring children’s brains and causing an epidemic of mental illness “is not supported by science.”


“Hundreds of researchers, myself included, have searched for the kind of large effects suggested by Haidt. Our efforts have produced a mix of no, small and mixed associations,” she wrote. Where they find associations they “suggest not that social-media use predicts or causes depression, but that young people who already have mental-health problems use such platforms more often or in different ways from their healthy peers.”


Rosch agrees that moderation is the best approach. “We talk about a healthy media diet,” he said. “If you spend all that time online you have to think about what you are not doing.”


“I wouldn’t be a good soccer player if I played FIFA five hours a day,” he added—a message he says often resonates with football-happy students. 
Since this debate won’t be settled anytime soon—certainly not while our kids are tweens and teens—Murthy’s plan seems smart to implement ASAP. Whether or not smartphones are destroying a generation, we should be supporting our kids to get more sleep, to learn in distraction-free schools, to invest in real-world friendships and relationships, and to exercise more. Expect resistance from them. And get ready to welcome their thanks down the road.