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Ah, the age-old question: Should kids have cell phones? Most experts agree that, in an ideal world, kids wouldn’t have unfettered access to the internet or social media until around high school, hence the increasingly popular movement to Wait Until 8th.

But it’s not just the odd brush with porn, confidence-crushing FOMO and cyber bullying that should concern parents. The dangers to kids overusing screens in any capacity are real. According to a federal government study by the NIH, 9- and 10-year-olds who spend more than seven hours a day on screens—which is not all that unusual, BTW—showed premature thinning of the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain that processes sensory input. But even if their daily screen use is cut down to the American Academy of Pediatrics–approved two hours, studies show this could still lower kids’ scores on thinking and language tests.

Finally, blowing a hole through the marketing of “educational” apps and streaming shows for kids, the AAP recently released a different study declaring that screen-based learning, particularly when it comes to math and language acquisition, “is most effective in school settings, where educators and fellow students can scaffold and support active and repetitive practice of skills.” Hm. That doesn’t sound like Fortnite.

Moreover, the study raises questions about what value screen time adds to kids’ lives, “particularly when one considers the educational value of what [screens] may be displacing, such as free play, creativity, experiencing nature or interacting with parents, siblings and friends.” It’s not simply that screens are “bad.” It’s that our kids’ free time is finite. Their attention is a precious resource, and it matters how they spend it.

We asked Delaney Ruston, M.D., a Stanford-trained primary care physician, a mom of two and the filmmaker behind the documentaries Screenagers and Screenagers: Next Chapter, for guidance on setting healthy boundaries between screens and kids. Read on for her wise, surprising advice. It turns out that smartphones may be a wonderful communication tool after all, if they start important conversations between parents and kids.

What’s driving kids to get on social media younger and younger?

Two words: peer pressure. Ask a parent of an elementary school kid why they bowed to pleas and tears for Minecraft, Roblox or TikTok, and some version of “All the kids are doing it” or “It’s inevitable” will be part of their answer.

According to Dr. Ruston, 19 percent of 8-year-olds now have smartphones. “That is the absolute number one [reason] why we have this extraordinary drop in age in terms of access into social media,” says Dr. Ruston. “It’s parents feeling the pain of their kids and having a hard time tolerating their kids’ sense that everyone is out on the ‘playground’ and they’re not. That is the last thing a parent wants to have to feel.”

And the kids are right. As psychologist Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, pointed out on the Raising Good Humans podcast, “This knee-jerk dislike of video games is anti-boy to me…But what moms and dads don’t take into account is that neighborhood play has died. And people don’t feel safe letting their children play outside the house. And for boys, the screen is the new out of doors. That’s where they meet up with their friends.”

The very Silicon Valley masterminds who developed this technology may ban screen time at home, but the reality on the ground—and on the playground—is far different. “As parents," Dr. Rustin asks, "how do we navigate the fear of our kids being socially excluded at a time when social centrality is a major developmental milestone for them? On the other hand, we have valid concerns about them being exposed to inappropriate content, and them wanting to be on the phone at the exclusion of all sorts of things that we want them to do.”

How young is too young for tech?

Dr. Ruston is careful to point out that if you have already given your child a smartphone and it’s creating problems, it’s never too late to backtrack or to more effectively communicate your concerns and establish rules. As for kids under 10? The more interactive the screen, the more addictive it is. In one groundbreaking study, researchers gave toddlers three toys: a plastic guitar, an iPad that played musical notes and an iPad with an interactive app that rewarded the kids with lights, colors and sounds. When researchers asked the kids to give back each toy, they were much more reluctant to give back the interactive screen. “Kids are trying to figure out the world, and when they do something and get a response, it’s highly dopamine rewarding,” explains Dr. Ruston. “So the key thing for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds is to try to [avoid] playing a stimulating game. You think it’s educational, you think it’s great, but there’s that risk that it may make doing other things seem boring. And the whining for it is going to be much higher.”

Anyone with a cell phone before sixth grade is at risk, Dr. Rustin explains: “Because the research shows that in elementary school, those kids who do have access to social media and smartphones report experiencing and doing cyber bullying more than those who don’t have phones.” The need to be “liked” means something totally different to today’s kids. “When you talk to teens in general, the number one issue they report as being negatively experienced isn’t actually being left out, it’s how people respond to their posts. So the pressure that these kids feel to be valued and seen and appreciated and accepted based on what they’re posting completely goes against the values of every parent I know.”

Blue light, silver lining

Dr. Ruston’s most uplifting message is that living in a digital revolution has its perks—including a potentially closer relationship with our kids. Whether we give them smartphones at 8 or 18, we are obligated to be their mentors as they build their online identities. “Before giving kids access to online games or apps, use this as a time to start these important conversations,” she says. “The question I have for parents is, ‘Are kids playing these games alone on a phone or a computer, or are they supervised by a parent?’”

She likens a child’s first experience with the internet to riding a bike with training wheels. You probably wouldn’t send a child off down a heavily trafficked street alone on a ten-speed with no helmet or parental guidance. By the same logic, you shouldn’t let him loose on Instagram without it either. You could, however, spend 15 minutes on a weekend setting up a shared account that you have the password to, and agree together that the child will not attempt to access the account without you by her side. “Now is the time to start talking with our kids about ‘What are the fun things about these apps and games? And what are some of the concerns?’

Because more than stranger danger, the reality of pornography is a higher risk issue. The average age when boys are exposed to pornography is 9.” A parent should give a child online access only if she is prepared to have awkward, difficult, vulnerable conversations. “No matter whether kids have a phone or don’t, the most important thing around parenting in the digital age is how we talk with our kids about all of these issues,” says Dr. Rustin.

We are not as effective when we try to instill fear in our kids. Having interviewed hundreds of teens over the course of a decade, Dr. Ruston observes that, thankfully, most of their experiences online aren’t scary. In general, “they’re not feeling in danger or even put down. So when we employ the scare tactic, they feel like, ‘Whoa, our parents don’t get it at all.’ We lose our ability to influence and guide them. So I advocate for a share tactic. We are there, by their side, to share science and stories and talk about values. Our job is to help to create boundaries, so there are explicit times off of screens and clear expectations of what they’re doing on screens, and to talk about what is appropriate to look at.” When we acknowledge the positive, desirable sides of life online, “kids feel safe and that we are being reasonable. So, hopefully, when things are not going well, they will trust us and come to us.”

Does denial breed rebellion?

We all know the analogy about the kid who is deprived of sweets at home and then goes to his friend’s house and raids the pantry for junk food. If we prohibit screens at home, will our kids just become more obsessed with them? “I think that’s our fear, but really, if you have healthy habits at home, that’s what the bulk of their ‘diet’ is going to be—their media diet, their food diet,” says Dr. Ruston. “So yes, they’re going to be exposed to more violent games at friends’ houses. They may see this inappropriate material. But we have no data to indicate that if we have clear guidelines and rules in our family about technology, or even if we have more limits than other kids, that we run the risk that they’re more likely to become addicted or that there’s going to be excessive use in the future.”

In fact, Dr. Ruston finds that the kids who grew up with limits around screen use are grateful to have had guardrails. “My kids have been set up for life that the ideal is to read a book to go to bed,” says Dr. Ruston. “I know they got a really strong foundation in my always saying that sleep is supreme and we don’t mess with sleep.”

Key Rules and Boundaries

It takes a village to curtail cell phone use. Whenever her kids were with friends, Dr. Ruston noticed that free time became screen time. So when she wanted her then middle-school-age daughter’s carpool to be tech-free, she nervously reached out to the other parents for help. “When I called them, they were so relieved,” she says. “And it was so relaxing to be driving the kids and just knowing they were looking out the window, they were talking to each other.” She began to regularly communicate with other parents to agree on how much screen time would be allowed at their respective houses during get-togethers. “That’s being proactive. This is the price we pay for having information like we’ve never had before. It takes work and yet it’s so worth it.”

While her kids were growing up, Dr. Ruston also made rules around sleep, study and family time. There were negotiations around when devices had to be turned off each night. Bedrooms were screen-free. If her kids were studying, the phone could not be near them. Devices were banished from the table and the car. “Tessa, my daughter, will still go out with me without her phone. And she’s 18,” says Dr. Ruston. “I really wanted to make sure that she can be out in the world without it.”

SAFER SMARTPHONE ALTERNATIVES FOR KIDS

Most phone plans now come with unlimited data. Wi-Fi is everywhere. And parental controls are limited, to say the least. If your kid has a smartphone, shutting down access to the internet is anything but easy. But thankfully, there are plenty of GPS tracking devices, screen-free phones and even watches with texting capability—but without access to social media and video games. Here, some well-reviewed favorites.

1. The Gizmo Smart Watch

With a GPS locator, step counter, two-way voice calls and text messaging with up to ten preprogrammed contacts, this is a logistical and safety godsend for parents who may want to give their kids freedom but still keep a digital eye on them from afar. Oh, and if you’re worried about its ability to survive the school bathroom, it’s waterproof.

Buy it ($180)

2. The Tick Talk 3

Video calling, voice calling, messaging and location tracking, this smart watch is all talk—in the best way possible.

Buy it ($180; $170)

3. The Wizard Watch

This one allows for a slightly longer leash, thanks to its enhanced safety features. Those include the ability to alert the child via “geo fencing” when he or she has stepped out of a preprogrammed “safety play zone.” It has directions and mapping capabilities to guide kids home. And it has a reassuring SOS button in case of emergency.

Buy it (from $120)

4. The Relay

Like a high-tech walkie-talkie (with the standard GPS tracking and geo fencing) that calls into your network of smartphones, kids can voice call you with the push of a button. Parental controls allow you to decide who can communicate with your kid via this device. And at $35 (plus a $10 monthly service charge), it’s the most affordable option.

Buy it ($35)

RELATED: 5 Signs Your Child Could Be Screen Addicted

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