- Thom Glick
Thinking about buying your child a smartphone this holiday season? I just got one for my 15-year-old son, Graham, and I can assure you, there are a dizzying array of options. I spent a few hours researching them and reading user reviews online before picking out his iPhone SE. My wife, Ann-Elise, and I both have iPhones, I like Apple's recent moves to improve data privacy, and that was the cheapest model available.
It was much harder to find guidance on how to teach Graham to use his new phone responsibly. I've owned a smartphone for almost as long as he's been alive, and I'm well aware of its addictive allure and how it functions as a gateway for all kinds of information. For the last few years, I've been leading workshops for students that focus on news literacy, and I've woven related activities into Kids VT's Good Citizen Challenge. I'm always on the hunt for new approaches to help kids — and parents — understand their digital devices. My biggest takeaway from my research? Parents need more help. A lot more.
In many ways, a smartphone is like a car, another powerful tool that young adults will likely learn to use eventually. Both promise freedom and independence but can also cause harm.
But cars have been around for more than a century, so we've had time to figure out how to use them safely. In Vermont, kids aren't allowed behind the wheel until they're 15. Then they have to pass a driver's ed class, practice driving for 40 hours in addition to the six hours required for the class, and have a learner's permit for a full year before earning a license to drive on their own.
Smartphones, on the other hand, have existed for roughly 25 years and have only become ubiquitous in the U.S. in the last 13 or so. Despite their name, these devices aren't just phones — they're pocket-size computers that allow us to call and text, watch movies, play games, spend money, interact with others over social media, view content online, and take and share photos and videos that can be distributed instantly to millions of people all over the world.
They're truly amazing tools, but we're only beginning to discover the effects they're having on our lives — how they're changing our brains, our attention spans, our relationships and our democracy.
And yet we don't do much to teach people how their phones work, or how to use them appropriately. There's no established curriculum, no smartphone education class at most schools. There's no equivalent of a driver's test for owning a smartphone, either. So when Ann-Elise and I felt that Graham was ready for his own iPhone, I made my own test. He had to pass it before we handed over the metaphorical keys.
Since then, Ann-Elise and I have talked about the test with lots of other parents. The most common feedback we've heard is: "I wish I'd thought of that" and "What's on the test?" So I'm sharing it, along with some of the resources I used to create it, to help you make your own.
Why I made the test
I waited as long as I could to buy Graham a smartphone — so long that he said he was one of the last students at Winooski High School to get one.
I pooh-poohed it as an exaggeration, but research suggests that he might have been right: In 2019, more than 50 percent of 11-year-olds had their own smartphone, according to a survey by the nonprofit research group Common Sense Media. That number has likely increased in the two years since.
There's no minimum age for owning a smartphone, though many apps, such as Facebook and Instagram, set a minimum age for users — in their case, 13. Of course, kids find ways around that rule.
Some young people can use social media appropriately. But parents and kids should both understand how these free services function.
They're often designed to maximize engagement — to keep someone using the platform for as long as possible, regardless of the content they're consuming or the effect it's having on their physical or mental health. That's often true of smartphones, as well.
To return to the car analogy, there's no smartphone-equivalent of speed limits, nor is there a seat belt law. The people who make the laws are still figuring out how these products work.
Don't take my word for it — watch some of the testimony that Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen gave last month before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security. The internal Facebook documents that Haugen gave them, and that she leaked to the press, describe how the company disregarded its own research showing that Instagram makes teen girls feel worse about their bodies, and about how its algorithms promote the content that's most divisive and outrageous.
It sounds like lawmakers are finally getting the message as far as Facebook is concerned — committee chair Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told CNN's Brian Stelter: "I think what we're seeing here is a building drumbeat for accountability."
That's great, but parents can't afford to wait. Kids are using these platforms now.
It's not just about Facebook
- Thom Glick
Mark Zuckerberg is only part of the problem. As any parent of a teen will tell you, our kids are much more likely to be using video-sharing sites such as YouTube and TikTok. Both have recommendation engines that suggest content to keep a viewer engaged.
YouTube, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet, has come under fire for recommending conspiracy theories, hate speech and disinformation to users. It has made some high-profile changes to help scrub that content from its platform, but it's a constant battle — one that YouTube doesn't always win.
The same goes for TikTok.
The Wall Street Journal recently created multiple TikTok accounts for fictional users ages 13 to 15. In a story on September 8, it revealed the results of its experiment: "An analysis of the videos served to these accounts found that through its powerful algorithms, TikTok can quickly drive minors — among the biggest users of the app — into endless spools of content about sex and drugs."
The website Raw Story tried the same tactic and in October published its own series of alarming stories, detailing how TikTok served fictional teen users content about firearm accessories, serial killers and school shooters, as well as videos promoting jihad and white nationalism, and disturbing videos about suicide, eating disorders and self-harm. Writer John Byrne reported that "TikTok played videos of users discussing suicide attempts from hospital beds; children joking about using razor blades for self-harm; and videos showing young women hospitalized for anorexia."
After the Wall Street Journal revelations, a TikTok spokesperson said that "Protecting minors is vitally important, and TikTok has taken industry-first steps to promote a safe and age-appropriate experience for teens." The company has also taken down some of the videos mentioned in these stories. But not all of them. And users keep uploading more.
Not every teen who uses these apps sees content like this. But parents have no way of knowing what will pop up on a child's screen. The content is customized to the individual — and there are no laws or regulatory standards covering how those feeds are created.
Kids can also use their phones to access shocking amounts of pornography. Hate to break it to you, parents, but finding porn online is much, much easier than swiping a copy of Playboy was back in the day.
Making your kids take a smartphone test isn't going to keep them from falling down one of these rabbit holes. But it at least offers a chance to talk about these issues so that you can navigate them together.
How I made the test
The test you design will depend on the age and maturity level of your child. Mine focused on a few key skills: avoiding phishing attempts, understanding legal risks, developing basic news literacy, and understanding and avoiding smartphone addiction.
I used the resources listed in the sidebar on page 27 to come up with questions. And I looked up statistics about distracted driving, as well as laws around sexting and revenge porn, which Vermont outlawed in 2015.
The test I gave Graham didn't focus heavily on social media because we've talked about it a lot already. I came up with a few sample questions for this test, though.
I put the questions in a Google doc that I shared with him. He filled in the answers, and we discussed them afterward.
The most important lessons
Though I required Graham to pass the test, the goal wasn't just for him to get the right answers: I wanted him to consider the questions and to think about his phone as something that could potentially get him in trouble. I wanted him to understand that what he does on his screen is not necessarily private, that his information is being recorded and could be used against him — by other teens, by cybercriminals and potentially in court.
I also wanted him to think in advance about how he wanted to use his phone. We got it for him because we wanted to empower him to connect with friends from camp, coaches, teachers and his boss at his part-time job, and to listen to music without wi-fi. I wanted him to reflect on how he could do that and avoid unintentionally losing hours to games and apps designed to suck him in.
The test was also just the beginning of our conversations about appropriate phone use. The topic is now something we discuss regularly over meals and at family meetings. We all pull out our phones and look at the screen time app that keeps track of what we're doing and when. We also talk about the information we're seeing.
Need an icebreaker for these talks? Ask each member of your family about the ads they see on YouTube and free streaming services such as Pandora. You'll likely have different and even surprising answers.
Frankly, these conversations are also helpful for my wife and me. And they're instructive for our 13-year-old daughter, Ivy, who doesn't have a phone yet, but watches YouTube videos on her tablet.
None of us is an expert, but we're all learning and talking about our devices together, which is ultimately the point.
Hopefully you can use this test and these resources to start conversations with your own kids.
One thing I know for sure: You can't count on anyone else to do it for you.
Study Guide for Parents
Need some help getting started? Here are a few of my go-to resources:
For parenting-specific information, try Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit that provides research, reviews and guidance for TV, movies, video games and devices. Its website, commonsensemedia.org, includes a section on cellphone parenting, with helpful answers to FAQs like, "What are the best privacy settings for my computer and cellphone?" and "Should I demand my kids' passwords to social media and apps?"
For an overview of smartphone and social media use for teens, try watching The Social Dilemma with them on Netflix. The accessible docudrama explains what goes on in your brain when you use social media.
For a deeper dive, the best resource I've found is the Center for Humane Technology, which assisted in producing The Social Dilemma. Started in 2018 by people with a background in the tech industry, this nonprofit is identifying and articulating the problems with our technological infrastructure, as well as advocating for solutions. Its website, humanetech.com, includes resources for technologists, policy makers, parents and educators. These include a new youth toolkit, designed for young adults ages 13 to 25.
I also highly recommend the center's podcast, "Your Undivided Attention." Hosts Aza Raskin and Tristan Harris interview guests like Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, and Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Philippines who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. The first two episodes probe the similarities between smartphones and casinos. We listened to them as a family on a road trip. A guest described how casinos are designed to hook gamblers in all sorts of ways, from the layout to the ceiling height to the way the buttons on the machines are positioned. It made us all look at our digital devices differently.
To delve into news literacy, check out the News Literacy Project at newslit.org. It works with former and current journalists to design activities for kids, and it has lots of helpful tools for parents and teachers.
Looking for a book that puts our tech use in perspective, and offers advice? I recommend Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, by New York Times writer Kevin Roose. I made Chapter 3 part of my smartphone test. It's a compelling addiction story about how Roose realized he had an unhealthy relationship with his smartphone and what he did to change it. Graham gave it two thumbs up..
My Smartphone Test
- Thom Glick
True or False
- Smartphones are very powerful and can be used to connect you to a wealth of useful resources.
- Smartphones can be dangerous.
- Many smartphone makers and app developers intentionally design their products to stimulate your brain in pleasurable ways, causing you to crave engagement with them and making them difficult to put down.
- Smartphones can be so addictive that it's hard to ignore them, even when driving. In 2018, 237 of the people who died because of distracted drivers in the U.S. were killed by drivers ages 15 to 19.
- No one will ever know if you use your phone while driving.
- The government closely regulates smartphone makers and app developers to make sure that their products are designed with public safety in mind.
- The State of Vermont requires you to pass a test to purchase and use a smartphone.
- If you receive a text with a link in it that says you won something, you should tap it to find out what you won.
- If you get a call from someone selling virus protection software, you should listen and do what they ask you to do.
- You can block apps from tracking your location on your phone.
- If you delete a text on your phone, no one will ever see it.
- You can be fined or charged with a crime for sending naked photos of yourself or someone else, depending on your age and the age of the recipient.
- In Vermont, it is illegal to post sexually explicit photographs of anyone online without their consent.
- Smartphones and social media apps are designed to spread content that engages users. Often this includes content that is outrageous, emotionally charged and misleading.
- The U.S. government regulates health and political information online.
- After Russian accounts were shown to have purchased misleading political ads on Facebook in 2016, social media companies tightened up their rules and no longer allow any election-related disinformation anywhere on their platforms.
- A recent study found that misinformation on Facebook got six times more clicks than factual news during the 2020 election.
- What are you excited to do with your smartphone?
- Read the August 2021 Wall Street Journal article "Digital Addictions Are Drowning Us in Dopamine" and Rule #3 in Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation by New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose. Briefly explain why smartphones become addictive. What are some of the strategies that science journalist Catherine Price recommends that Roose try to help him reduce his dependence on his smartphone?
(Note to parents: If you don't have access to either of these, you can substitute "Constant Craving: How Digital Media Turned Us All Into Dopamine Addicts," an August 2021 article available for free from the Guardian, and Roose's 2019 Times article "Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.")
- What strategies do you plan to use to help you maximize the benefits of having a smartphone, while also minimize the risks to your mental health?
If you take this test, or give it to your kids, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me how it went! I'd love to hear about your smartphone strategies, too.