A 7-Year Old I know Just Got Her First Cell Phone

A 7 year old I know just told me that she got her first cell phone. She’s proud and happy, but the reality of a 7 year old with a phone gives me pause. I find myself wondering what she will be doing on this phone. Who will she text or call? What games will she be playing? How much will this phone take her away from direct contact with her friends?

I walk with my dog around a pond in my town. Sometimes I see kids there. They used to be fishing in the pond, skipping rocks, or just walking around and talking with one another. Now, I see 3 boys, probably around 12, sitting on a bench. Each is looking at his phone. They are not talking. They are not skipping rocks. They are not even looking at the beautiful pond or noticing the blue heron standing in the shallows on the far end. My dog sees all these things, even the boys on their phone. But the boys are watching their screens.

In my work with children and adolescents, I see increasing levels of anxiety. Kids are stressed about being a good enough student, having a record that will get them into one of the best colleges, concerned about their parents’ job stress, wondering if they are a good enough athlete.  They also worry about being perceived well by their peers. They crave popularity and fret when they imagine that they are not well-liked. It is enough for them to become so dysregulated that their ability to concentrate is impaired. It often affects their academic work and relationships. Their schools are introducing wellness initiatives which promote meditation and mindfulness to de-stress. But as soon as they finish their mindful moments, their minds are back to worries. I worry that much of their stress is, in fact, related to their social life, a life that takes place increasingly on social media. What has happened on Instagram since they last logged on? Is their online presence–their instagram or youtube channel–measuring up? The competitive feelings stirred by their involvement on social media often reach a fever pitch, and they struggle to contain and metabolize overwhelming feelings that they do not, after all, measure up.

In The New York Times article “A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley,” Nellie Bowles observes that the parents in Silicon Valley, those most engaged in the creation of the technology that kids are using, “don’t want their kids anywhere near it.”

The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high…Ms. Stecher, 37 [a former social computing researcher], and her husband, Rushabh Doshi,  [a Facebook engineer] researched screen time and came to a simple conclusion: they wanted almost none of it in their house.

The problem cited in this article as the most troubling is that the phones are addictive. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired is quoted as saying ” of screens, “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.”

“We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Bowles cites a number of high-profile tech industry leaders who are seriously limiting their children’s use of screens for this reason. She also cites others who are not so concerned, who focus on the benefits of technology and who want their children to be well-versed in it and to learn early to code. They try to teach their children how to recognize when they are being manipulated by the coders. They are of the mind that they can engender in their children a critical stance toward technology.

I can see both sides of this argument. Technology has much to offer. We have easy and inexpensive means to communicate with loved ones all over the world. It is clear that social media can be a life saver for someone feeling isolated or living far from family and friends. Grandparents are able to stay connected with grandchildren, even when they live in different parts of the country or world. Social media can allow friendships to flourish even when friends are separated by geographic chasms. And, after all, I, myself, am writing a blog.

The internet also provides us with access to an incredible (sometimes overwhelming) amount of information. With the touch of a finger, we can do research that once was prohibitively expensive and time-consuming We can not only absorb but create new knowledge with the help of sophisticated search engines. The technological advances of the past 20 years have the potential to create a more democratic society, in which more people have access to information. But we also are coming to understand that we can be taken in by misinformation, as well.

While the parents profiled in Bowles’ article seem mainly concerned with addiction to devices, that is not my main concern.  I am more concerned when social media becomes a place where children and adolescents (and adults, too) come to assess their worth and the value of their relationships to others.  I am wondering how young children with access to social media are impacted by the competitive nature of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. When social media facilitates real connections between people, then it may indeed offer social benefit. When, however, it becomes more a platform for curating a self-image designed only to impress and compete with others, then it has the potential to erode self-esteem, which can lead to stress, increased anxiety, and depression. I don’t believe that an adolescent, never mind a 7-year old, has the cognitive sophistication to sort out the difference.

I am also wondering if technology-mediated relationships provide as much sustenance and gratification as their proponents suggest. Adolescent and adult patients of mine have reported deep feelings of loneliness and isolation despite maintaining an active presence with many “friends” on social media We have some evidence that empathy is engaged more readily and completely when you are in face-to-face contact with someone. (See Cole, Jonathan. (2001). Empathy Needs a Face. Journal of Consciousness Studies. 8. 51-68) The ideas in my blog are premised on a theory of human development that posits that we develop a sense of our identity and safety in the context of a human relationships. And finally, John Bowlby reminds us that we maintain a sense of safety through proximity to our attachment figures.

Perhaps we need actual and not merely virtual proximity in order to feel the benefits of attachment.

Our devices and attachment to social media is deep and powerful. The benefits are clear. And yet it behooves us to keep talking about the risks social media pose to the quality of our relationships and to continue to question and monitor the impact it may be having on our children’s development.



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