When Should You Get Your Child a Phone

By Greg Baer M.D.

April 2, 2024

Today I read an article in the Wall Street Journal by one of the staff writers specializing in children’s use of technology. I am NOT criticizing her article. I AM using it as a very good reflection and distillation of society’s present views on children and phones. She has her pulse directly on what kids, parents, therapists, and science are saying about children and phones.  

Age is Not the Question

The author says that many parents are considering getting phones for their kids, and “a handful of parenting questions are top of mind: First, what is the appropriate age for children to get a phone?” 

Immediately, she begins with the wrong question. The real question is, should a parent EVER get a phone for a child? Her question accepts the false premise that children NEED a phone. Her question is like asking, “What is the appropriate age for children to start smoking or drinking?” I’m NOT exaggerating because the negative effects of phones are MORE damaging in the short-term than smoking, and are steadily proving to have worse long-term effects as well.  

In all the history of the world, nothing has promoted CHANGE faster than the Internet and the availability of the Internet in everyone’s HAND. Some of that change has been good, some bad, but the question before us is whether the positive effects outweigh the negative in the HANDS OF A CHILD 

Cigarette and Phone Use Similarities

Almost no one knows that one hundred years ago lung cancer was rare. But then technology greatly accelerated cigarette production, and they were advertised heavily, and during World Wars One and Two the U.S. government gave out free cigarettes with nearly every meal to every member of the military. Smoking was EVERYWHERE, and understandably it was accepted as “normal.” If everybody is doing it, how could it be wrong? And it was very cool, and it relaxed people, and even “connected” them as they sat around smoking.  

I found a graph of the exponential climb of smoking over a period of just a few decades, and I compared it to one depicting the increase of lung cancer. The two graphs are nearly identical—just separated by 30 years. It took us like 60-70 years to figure out that smoking was CAUSING lung cancer. A little dense, yes?   

We’re experiencing the SAME thing now with kids and phones. Same. We come up with every excuse imaginable for their use: phones connect them with their peers (like cigarettes), they’re fun (smoking), everybody is using them (cigarettes), they’re very cool (smoking). And just as with cigarettes, almost no parents are appreciating how quickly the negative consequences are building as a direct result of phone use.  

Increasingly, though, more and more experts are beginning to recognize the dangers, just as physicians finally realized the dangers of tobacco, which is still killing 450,000 people per year. We are not quick to observe the consequences of our behavior. We all went nuts when COVID-19 killed 375,000 people in the United States in 2020. We were all there and saw it, but in that same year tobacco killed MORE, and killed more the year before, and will kill more in 2021. Our response? Pretty much nothing—just like our response to kids and phones.  

The Effects of Phones on Children 

So, what are experts now seeing with kids and phones? What am I observing in my interactions with parents and kids every day?  

  • Kids are becoming addicted to their phone, just as we did with cigarettes—and still are. 
  • They go into meltdown if they can’t use their phones, proof of their addiction. They go into withdrawal, just like smokers have nicotine fits when they stop cold turkey.  
  • The connection kids have with each other on social media is superficial and false: false images, false communications, false relationships.  
  • Social media is forcing children to compare themselves to each other and to ideals of appearance and behavior that are either fabricated or impossible or both.  
  • Kids are focusing on their phones instead of their parents and other people.  
  • They’re becoming crippled when it comes to real-life interactions. 
  • They’re becoming less able to function in the workplace, according to them AND their bosses. 
  • More and more of them stay home and don’t bother to get jobs in the first place.  
  • Phones have become a virtual world where they LIVE, isolating them from real-life entirely.  
  • They think about their phones and what they do on them even when they’re not ON them.  
  • They are becoming DEFINED by their phones and what they do with them.  

This is just a partial list, rolling out of my mind without any effort or attempt at organization. Is it really this bad? YES, it is, and yet we’re asking questions like “At what age should a child have a phone?” Really? Yes, we’re that blind.  

Children are Treating Their Pain with Screens

Then everyone is surprised when a child is defiant, failing school, constantly anxious and on medication, gets pregnant, has ADHD, becomes depressed, is cutting, or is addicted to phones, gaming, pornography, alcohol, drugs, and more. As parents we actually have the gall to be surprised when these common problem behaviors arise. I’m here to declare—and to plead with people to see—that we have NO justification for surprise. Our children’s pain has been building for years, and they’ve been screaming their pain.  

But now they have an access to electronic devices that give them immediate relief, and are designed to keep them pacified and to keep them using. So they treat their pain in ways that appear to keep them quiet, and mostly we’re content with that—thrilled, really. They’re not robbing banks or shooting people, so what’s the problem? Our standard for parental guidance has become low enough for snakes to crawl over after a heavy meal.  

Surely no parent would watch an eight-year-old child begin to smoke cigarettes without warning the child of the severe risks of that behavior. Unthinkable. And yet with electronic devices, we stand by cluelessly and helplessly, while one thing leads to another. Can we afford to do that? Can we afford to debate the AGE when they get a phone, as opposed to recognizing the rapidly apparent dangers of them? (And we’re not even beginning to see the depths of the consequences.) 

Can we afford to watch our children become emotionally and spiritually crippled because we ignored the many, many signs that they were treating their pain with screens? Do we realize that EVERY SINGLE TIME a child looks at a screen without us being there, we are inviting WHOEVER happens to show up on the screen to parent our children? And I promise you that those teachers, those surrogate parents—their peers, video games, porn sites, social media, adult predators, marketers of everything you could think of, and complete strangers—are NOT interested in helping our children to feel loved, or be loving, or be responsible, the three components that result in genuine happiness.  

The Real Reason Parents Give Phones to Their Children

The author of the Journal article continues: “Are we getting the phone for the kids—or because we feel a desire to always stay connected? How do we value their social pressures to own one?”  

She has missed entirely the REAL reason parents give phones to their children. After hundreds of conversations on this subject, I can tell you the real reason: The parents are terrified of the DISAPPROVAL of their children if they DON’T give them phones. The children whine, and cry, and get angry, and scowl at their parents as though they were cruel, totalitarian monsters, and THAT is what parents hate more than anything. Parents are very short-sighted—just like their children—so if they can avoid a moment of ugly disapproval even at the potential cost of future injury to the child, they will usually choose their OWN COMFORT.  

The author continues: “What kind of phone should we get them? And what parental controls are available to keep them safe? Moms and dads, I’m going to break this down for you.”  

I promise you that parents reading this article are ALL hoping for some real guidance about their children, but they are also ALL missing the fact that this author knows nothing about unconditional love, has never parented a child with unconditional love, never mentions love, and will not factor love and genuine happiness into any of her advice. I am NOT criticizing her—I don’t know her—but I AM pointing out that leaving Real Love out of any discussion about children is like talking about crop production without talking about sunshine, rain, and soil. This article in the largest newspaper in the United States is much like a farmer discussing when to apply fertilizer to corn seeds planted in the middle of the Sahara Desert where there is no soil or water. Kind of a silly discussion, yes? 

Determining the Right Age and Phone Readiness

The article continues: “Determining the right age 

“What we know is that there is not a magic age for when to get a child a smartphone, but by age eleven, 53% of kids have their own smartphone,” said Kelly Mendoza, a leader at a nonprofit group focused on responsible media use.” 

What the article does NOT say is that the average age of boys beginning an addiction to porn is now eleven, the same age—not a coincidence—that 53% of boys have their own phone.  

The article said that “parents can assess their children’s phone readiness by asking themselves the following questions: 

  • Do they show a sense of responsibility, such as getting their homework done on time? 
  • Are they responsible for their things—do they tend to lose or damage personal items? 
  • Do they already keep other devices, such as tablets, charged? 
  • Would they be able to resist texting or scrolling in class?” 

All the wrong questions. First, there is no correlation between these questions and the imminent addiction to screen use. These questions are like asking whether a child has a clean room as a criterion for whether he is ready to start smoking in his bedroom. Second, there is absolutely no way to assess the answer to some of these questions: “Would they be able to resist using their phone in class?” NO parent could know that. No parent predicts that their child will become addicted to screens, porn, or video games, so why fool ourselves that asking a predictive question like this has any value?  

The author states, “Many kids start asking for a phone once their friends have one.” 

No, ALL kids ask for a phone when their friends have one. So what if their friends have one? If all their friends bought a pet cobra, would you get one? And then teach them guidelines about the cobra’s care?  

The article: “Do they want a phone because they want to fit in? Are they being excluded from social interactions, such as group texts?”  

Experts increasingly are recognizing that the “social interactions” children fear being excluded from are very often TOXIC, demeaning, comparing, exclusionary, and even bullying. No, children can get the interactions they need from each other in person. And with the guidance of a loving parent. 

The article continued with other justifications for a child having a phone, all of which can be solved in ways OTHER than having a phone. With older teenagers, parents might consider getting a Gabb phone, where kids can call and text but don’t have access to the Internet.  

The article then went on to suggest that when kids get a phone, they use the same kind of phone as the parents. One reason? “It can be an excuse to upgrade your phone (the parent) and give them your old one.” Hardly an expression of what is best for the child, would you think?  

Be wise. Think long and hard about what is best for your child’s emotional health—not your own comfort, or their popularity, or their access to social media—before making this life-altering decision about getting a phone.  

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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