Your child wants a smartphone? What to know about the risks and alternatives : Shots - Health News When's the right time to start your child with a phone? Is 12 too young? Here's what a professional screen time consultant tells parents about the risks kids face online.

So your tween wants a smartphone? Read this first

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Here's a question many parents are struggling with or have struggled with - should I give my kid a smartphone? Maybe they're putting on the pressure. They need one for school or for safety, and all their friends already have one - like, all of them. But before you place the order, consider the experiences of parents who have said yes. For our series Living Better, NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: For the past four years, Emily Cherkin has been working with parents on the other side of this situation. They've given their kid a smartphone, and now they're struggling with it. Cherkin is a former middle school teacher, now a screen consultant. She says these parents have one thing in common.

EMILY CHERKIN: Talked to hundreds of parents, and they - not one has ever said to me, I wish I gave my kid a phone earlier, or I wish I'd given them social media access sooner - never. It's always the opposite.

DOUCLEFF: They wish they had waited.

CHERKIN: And I hear that. I hear, I wish I knew then what I know now.

DOUCLEFF: The parents wish they knew two repercussions of giving a child a phone. No. 1, it means dealing with a whole new set of possible dangers...

CHERKIN: I think parents feel that by providing their child with devices, they are somehow keeping their child safe. And it's actually very backwards thinking. Our fears are very misplaced...

DOUCLEFF: ...That the world online, for some kids, may actually be riskier than the world in real life. In a recent survey of about 1,000 teen girls, about half who use TikTok, Instagram or Snapchat say they've been contacted by a stranger who made them feel uncomfortable, and more than 10% said they see harmful or disturbing content related to suicide or disordered eating on a daily basis. And then there's porn. Cherkin says before giving your kid any app, set up an account for them first.

CHERKIN: Then I tell parents use that account for yourself for a week or more. Then decide - is this the product or an app that I want my kid using?

DOUCLEFF: She tried this herself with Snapchat.

CHERKIN: I pretended to be 15. I didn't even like anything. I just went to the discover feed where it, like, pushes you content based on your age usually.

DOUCLEFF: Immediately, she saw sexualized and vulgar content.

CHERKIN: Within seconds.

DOUCLEFF: Wait, with the account that was supposed to be the 15-year-old using it or...

CHERKIN: Oh, yeah, it's insanity.

DOUCLEFF: Snapchat's parent company, Snap, said in an email that it understands concerns about the appropriateness of some content and is working to offer teens a more age-appropriate experience. But scientists have found that kids are drawn to this content and to these apps like magnets. And this brings us to the second thing to know. Before you hand over a phone, expect a constant struggle. It's going to be very hard to get your child to do other things, like read a book or go play outside with friends. Why? The phone and its apps trigger a molecule inside the brain that makes you crave them - almost like a drug. Anne-Noel Samaha is a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal. She says children's brains haven't developed enough to handle this magnetic pull.

ANNE-NOEL SAMAHA: It's almost as if you have, like, the perfect storm. You have these games and the social media and brains that are just not yet ready to have that level of self-control.

DOUCLEFF: She says even some adults can't regulate their phone use.

SAMAHA: I consider myself as having a lot of self-control, but I'll be, like, in the metro coming in to work. Automatically, I'll take my phone out of my pocket. Like, why am I doing that?

DOUCLEFF: In other words, how can you expect an 11-year-old to handle this if some adults struggle with it? NPR contacted TikTok, Instagram's Meta, along with Snap. All the companies declined interviews but said they have invested in tools to help parents customize and monitor a child's account. Still, even with parental controls, screen consultant Emily Cherkin says it's a lot of work to manage, so she gives parents the same advice over and over again.

CHERKIN: As long as you possibly can, delay. Delay all of it.

DOUCLEFF: And if you just have to order a phone, make it a dumb phone where the child can just text and call. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.


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