5 things you need to know before giving a smartphone to a kid

What we learned from our conversation with psychologist Dr. Sharon Maxwell and her daughter, learning designer and educator, Chelsea Maxwell.

In our October Action Network Live! event, psychologist Dr. Sharon Maxwell and her daughter, learning designer and educator Chelsea Maxwell, joined CCFC’s Jean Rogers for a compelling conversation about preparing kids and teens for digital life before they get a smartphone. Together, Jean, Sharon, and Chelsea discussed how important it is for teens to have a strong sense of identity, to understand how today’s tech targets our brains, and to spend meaningful time alone in an age of distraction.

Here are five takeaways from the conversation to guide you as your family makes choices about smartphones:


Kids – and adults – turn to their phones to escape discomfort.

And it’s not good for us. When we turn to our phones during a lull in conversation or an awkward moment, we’re not learning to experience and process the uncomfortable feelings we may be having. “Learning to get through the embarrassing moments of adolescence, eyeball to eyeball, is as important as anything you’re learning in school,” Sharon said. “And you’re not going to do it if you’re holding your cellphone in your hand.” By encouraging young people to sit with their unpleasant feelings before introducing smartphones, we can reduce the likelihood that they’ll seek a screen when they’re feeling bad.


Tech products and social media platforms are taking advantage of our brains…

Big Tech companies hire psychologists to help design products to keep kids’ attention focused on screens for as long as possible. The extreme, engaging features offered on a variety of tech platforms target the amygdala, the part of our brain where instinct lives, by using splashy colors, “loot boxes” similar to slot machines, and short game lengths that trigger a feeling of anxiety or wanting more. “The amygdala has to follow that scary thing in order to feel like it’s sufficiently protecting itself,” Sharon explained. “Knowing this, [tech companies] can get us to stay online.”


…and teaching kids how their brains work can help them resist.

Just because Big Tech uses these insidious techniques doesn’t mean that we’re powerless! Just being aware of how our brains are being manipulated can help kids change their habits, the Maxwells explained. When kids learn how digital devices and social media manipulate them, they’re better able to observe their tech use and reclaim their time. Knowing that Fortnite is designed to be “sticky,” for example, also means kids can take proactive measures against that stickiness, like setting a timer for how long they’ll play.


Empathy is key for healthy relationships – including our relationships with technology.

Through their workshops, the Maxwells have found that practicing empathy can help young people reevaluate their relationships to tech and digital devices. Chelsea described how presenting scenarios that require kids and teens to examine others’ feelings can spark deep self-reflection. One such scenario has teens consider the feelings of a divorced parent when, during a visit, their kids ignore them in favor of a phone. As they discuss situations close to their own lives, teen participants start to reflect on how their tech use makes them – and the people around them – feel.


A strong sense of self helps kids and teens resist external pressures such as commercialism – and screens can get in the way of that.

Time alone for self-reflection and contemplation is an essential part of healthy development, and the only way to understand who you are and what you value. “Who are you? This isn’t something you find out by constantly having to do presentation of yourself on Snapchat, or Instagram or Facebook,” Sharon told us. “It takes time [for teens] to actually develop that relationship with self. And we’re not giving them that time.” In other words, the constant stream of commercial content delivered by smartphones encourages teens to think of themselves as a brand or a product instead of an individual. By cultivating screen-free practices like cooking, writing, or just spending some time outdoors, young people can establish a strong identity away from social media rife with commercial messages.

Action Network Live! is a project of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, and brings together experts, parents, and caregivers to talk about critical issues around kids and technology. Learn more about joining the Network, or sign up for our email list to be notified about upcoming events!