Alarming New Research on How Kids Use Phones

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New research from Common Sense (a nonprofit, independent children's media advocacy group) found some alarming trends in how kids aged 11 to 17 use their phones. Out of the 203 participants, 97% of kids use their phones during school hours for a median of 43 minutes, and over 50% of kids get 237 notifications per day. Most of these notifications are from Snapchat, Discord, and TikTok.

Here are some more surprising findings from the report:

  • Almost 60% use their phones at night on school nights, primarily for social media, gaming, or YouTube.
  • Some participants in the research used their phones up to 16 hours a day.
  • Phones were checked anywhere from two to 498 times per day.
  • TikTok was one of the most popular apps, used by 50% of the kids that participated in the research.
  • 45% of participants used apps with mature (17+) or adult-only (18+) ratings, such as Pornhub, fantasy sports and betting apps, or violent games. 
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According to the Surgeon General, all this phone time isn’t good for a child’s mental health; in fact, it could harm the development of a young brain. To find out what parents can do to manage all this screen time in a more healthy way, we contacted Shelley Delayne, parent education director at Pinwheel. Here’s what she had to say.

Kids using their phones in school.

Image: RDNE Stock Project, Pexels

What finding surprised you the most in this study?

It surprised me that kids get as many notifications as they do (237 on average!), but only engage with a quarter (46 on average) of them. I'd imagined that kids would jump to respond to each and every buzz and ping. 

It also surprised me to learn how many younger children (11- to 12-year-olds) use social media platforms while still under the minimum age limit.

  • TikTok: 47%
  • Snapchat: 31%
  • Discord: 25%
  • Instagram: 16%
  • Facebook: 16%
  • Pinterest: 14%

 It feels urgent that we raise awareness with parents around the risks of harm with such apps to help delay their introduction until later in the teen years. The Surgeon General recommended a minimum age of 16, and for many kids, that would be a far less risky starting age.

When should your kiddo get a phone?

It's tricky to decide when your child is ready for a phone. Here are some things to consider: What Age Should Kids Get a Phone?

Video: Is Snapchat SAFE for Kids and Teens? | Ask SafeWise

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What do you suggest parents do to help lessen the damage of tech use on mental health?

The biggest thing parents can do to lessen the damage of tech use on kids' mental health is to ensure that it doesn't interfere with sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation commonly leads to poor mental health outcomes, whatever the cause.

The second biggest thing parents can do is to model healthy tech use: to not interrupt conversations with their kids to answer a text, to put their phone down during family dinners, to demonstrate making choices to put the phone down and engage in other things.

The third? Stay involved in their digital lives. Parent them with tech in a manner congruent with their physical world level of development and responsibility. Treat each app as a “place,” evaluate what's there before allowing it, and teach the necessary skills to prepare for the content and features.

For example, if a kid is not yet ready to go alone to an adult space like the local mall with a handful of cash, handle interactions with anyone there and get home safe — they are not yet ready for social media. It feels different because it's digital. It isn't different.

"If a kid is not yet ready to go alone to an adult space like the local mall with a handful of cash, handle interactions with anyone there and get home safe — they are not yet ready for social media. It feels different because it's digital. It isn't different." -Shelley Delayne, parent education director at Pinwheel.

What are some tactics that you use with your own children to help limit tech without leading to meltdowns?

Prioritizing developmental needs and being clear about those expectations naturally limit tech to a certain degree. Between sleep recommendations, the need for physical movement and activity, time spent engaging in in-person interactions, and time spent on school and home responsibilities and work, kids don't have a huge amount of time left over. Tech use is often displacing one of these: sleep, engagement, exercise, and work. 

With mine, we write out and discuss schedules to be able to see clearly: 

  • Is there enough rest time?
  • In-person time? 
  • Activity and exercise? 
  • Responsibilities accounted for? 

When slotting tech time into the schedule where there's room, we always discuss the intended activity: 

  • Game time? 
  • Drawing or creating time? 
  • Reading? 
  • Watching something? 
Graph showing how often kids look at their phones: 0-100 20% 101-200 20% 201-300 23% 301-400 9% 401-500 9% >500 20%

Choosing an activity ahead of time also lets me ask questions like, "Is that something you can end at any time, or will you need wrap-up time (like a game with no pausing)?" Knowing what the planned activity is for after tech use is also helpful for preventing meltdowns. A transition between things is different than just stopping doing something fun to then figure out what to do next. 

I also use a Pinwheel phone, which allows me to schedule contacts and apps remotely by time of day, so they can have one set of apps during the school day without distractions or access to texting friends. Then, a different set for after school and at night: only a sleep aid app and being able to contact me. 

Because the phone provides the appropriate choices for that time of day, it helps teach context and intentional use without constantly having to remind them to resist the impulse. They learn by doing. 

We also collaborate on the phone schedule to meet their needs. Not necessarily their wants, but their needs. 

Learning how to have curious, collaborative, open communication with my kid has been a cornerstone for navigating technology. You cannot give kids a set of rules for online behavior and expect them to follow them. It has to be an ongoing process and conversation around what they want to do, what they have done, all of it.

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Alina Bradford
Written by
Alina is a safety and security expert that has contributed her insights to CNET, CBS, Digital Trends, MTV, Top Ten Reviews, and many others. Her goal is to make safety and security gadgets less mystifying one article at a time. In the early 2000s, Alina worked as a volunteer firefighter, earning her first responder certification and paving the way to her current career. Her activities aren’t nearly as dangerous today. Her hobbies include fixing up her 100-year-old house, doing artsy stuff, and going to the lake with her family.

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