Surprise! A Stanford School of Medicine study showed no meaningful links between children’s well-being and the age at which they received their own mobile phone — a result researchers credit, in part, to parents being thoughtful about timing.
“One possible explanation for these results is that parents are doing a good job matching their decisions to give their kids phones to their child’s and family’s needs,” said senior author Thomas Robinson, MD, the Irving Schulman, MD, Professor of Child Health and a professor of pediatrics and of medicine.
The study, published in September 2022 in Child Development, followed 250 low-income Latino children for five years, during which time researchers tracked their well-being as they transitioned into phone ownership. Little prior research has focused on technology acquisition in non-white or low-income populations, the researchers said.
Over the five years, each child and one of their parents took part in baseline and annual assessments. At each point, parents reported whether and when their child got a phone, the child’s recent grades, and their sleep patterns and daytime sleepiness.
When deciding to give a child a phone, parents typically weigh many factors, such as the child’s need to contact a parent or maintain social connections, how much the phone may distract the child, and whether the child can handle exposure to cyberbullying.
More than half the children were given a phone between 10.7 and 12.5 years of age, but the average was 11.6 years old. (The children ranged from 7 to 11 years old when the study began, and 11 to 15 when it ended.)
During the check-ins, children filled out assessments for depression. For a week after check-ins, the children wore accelerometers on their right hip to determine when and how long they slept.
In addition to finding no measurable link between phone ownership and a child’s well-being, researchers found there was no “golden rule” about timing, said the study’s lead author Xiaoran Sun, PhD, a former postdoctoral scholar at Stanford Medicine and Stanford Data Science.
“These results,” Robinson concluded, “should be seen as empowering parents to do what they think is right for their family.”
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Top photo by Dionisio