“My ex wants to get our daughter a cell phone, but I don’t think she’s ready.”
“My ex constantly calls and texts our son when he is with me, and it is affecting the quality of our time together.”
“My ex won’t give me the password to our children’s phones so I can monitor their online activity.”
“My ex blocked me from the kids’ phones so I can’t call them.”
In the last five years, conflicts between parents over children’s smartphone use have skyrocketed. Over three-quarters of Americans own a smartphone, a number that has risen exponentially since 2011. In December 2016, the Google Play Store surpassed 2.6 million apps, and there are approximately 2.2 million apps in the Apple App Store. Smartphones have become an inevitable fact of life for most of the country, but their popularity has increased so significantly and so recently, that the science of how smartphones affect our lives has not had a chance to catch up.
Smartphone use is even prevalent amount infants, with apps such as YouTube Kids soaring in popularity. A survey done in 2015 found that more than one-third of parents allowed their children to use a smartphone before that child’s first birthday. The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, discourages the use of smartphones with infants under two years old. Last year, pediatricians at the Hospital for Sick Children in Canada studied 900 infants between six months and two years old found that infants who spent at least 30 minutes using smartphones had a 49% increased risk of speech delays.
The average age for an American child to receive their first smartphone is 10 years old. Even at this age, however, smartphones may still have negative effects on a child’s psyche. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, collected data from 500,000 children across the United States between 2010 and 2015, and found that children who spent more than three hours per day on a smart phone were 34% more likely to consider or attempt suicide, and that number jumped to 48% for children who spent more than five hours per day on a device. She has not concluded, however, whether smartphone use leads to the depression or if depression leads to increased smartphone use.
What is known, however, is that depression is up among children. The number of children expressing depressive episodes between 2010 and 2016. Suicide rates for teens have also increased, and suicide among teen girls is at a 40-year high, according to the CDC.
Smartphones can be seriously addictive to children, and the number of children and teens enrolling in “technology addiction” treatment has risen sharply in the last decade. Smartphones can also affect sleep patterns and sleep quality, and there are additional concerns about cyberbullying and a child, whether it be by accident or intentional, stumbling upon disturbing sexual or violent images or videos on the internet. There are also apps, such as the “Secret Calculator” app, that can enable children to hide files, photos, and videos from their parents behind an app that appears to simply be a phone’s default calculator app.
Merely not allowing teens to have access to smartphones is not so simple of an answer, however. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, nearly 75% of teens now have access to a smartphone. Data analyzed by Verto Analytics found that teens unlock their devices 95 times per day, on average.
There are, however, some upsides to smartphone use. A study done at the University of Minnesota among teens with noncustodial fathers who lived out-of-state found that smartphone communication between teens and a nonresident parent can improve such relationships.
There is still a great deal of research that needs to be done on the effect of smartphones on the brains of children and teens, but smartphone use among these groups is here to stay. Psychologists recommend that parents use consistent rules about when smartphone use is an is not allowed, that parents consider not allowing smartphone use overnight, and, particularly for younger children, that parents monitor their children’s online activities and keep track of their passwords
Parents should also consider having a conversation with their children, no matter how uncomfortable, to explain that information, photos, and videos shared or posted online could very likely end up being viewed by those the child did not intend to view the information and that children should not say or share anything they would not want a parent to see. Experts warn, however, that parents should make sure to reassure their children that they will not be punished for letting a parent know about cyberbullying or other inappropriate communication directed at that child.
How does a parent reduce conflict with an ex-partner regarding cell phone use? First, in the absence of extenuating circumstances, it is important to give a child some level of privacy to speak to the other parent. Respecting and being consistent with the rules related to the smartphone developed by another parent can also help to reduce conflict, as can communicating with the other parent to develop sensible rules to be used in both households.
A parent should also resist the temptation to excessively call or text a child while the child is with the other parent (in the absence of an emergency) and to respect the other parent’s time with the child. Many parents avoid conflict by agreeing upon a window of time in which the child can call or text with the other parent to check in or say good night.
Though this subject matter is fairly new, an experienced family law attorney can help a parent find options to reduce conflict with a co-parent surrounding smartphone issues, and to negotiate reasonable rules for cell phone use with which both parents can agree.