IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Should kids have smartphones? Debate grows on mental health impact

Many kids have a smartphone by age 12, and some even younger.
/ Source: TODAY

What is the right age for kids to have a smartphone? It's a question every parent grapples with.

A recent survey of 5,000 kids found that in 2021, 37% of 11-year-olds have a smartphone and 91% of 14-year-olds have one.

The pandemic changed the way kids learned and spent their free time. According to Common Sense Media, screen use for teens and tweens has grown by 17% since 2019.

NBC Senior National Correspondent Kate Snow reported that many parents feel pressure to make sure their kids are "keeping up" with their peers, can text with friends, and have a phone for safety reasons.

But mom of four Adriana Stacey, a psychiatrist who has seen the effects of screen time in her practice, is holding firm: no smartphones for kids.

"I'll get a patient in my office, usually a teenager who all the sudden started to struggle with anxiety and depression and pretty much every time we can trace that back to- when did you get a phone?" Stacey told Snow.

It's a decision Stacey's oldest daughter, Annalise, struggles with sometimes.

"It’s definitely hard sometimes," the 10th grader told Snow. "I have been like, left out of decisions, because I haven’t been on a group chat or something."

Stacey said that her stance on smartphones for kids can be isolating, but there is growing movement she might not be alone for long.

A movement called "Wait Until Eighth" encourages parents to wait until at least 8th grade to give kids smartphones. The network is 40,000 families strong and they've seen a 25% increase in participation in the last year alone.

Research about the impact of smartphones is mixed.

A large study using data from the National Institutes of Health found screen time was moderately associated with worse mental health, increased behavior problems, decreased academic performance, and poorer sleep, but also found using a smartphone or device improved friendships and connection.

"All of us are basically living in a big social experiment where smartphones have taken over," Dr. Jean Twenge professor of psychology at San Diego State University told Snow. "In effect, we’re experimenting with their brains, 'Hey, let’s give them all smartphone and see what happens.'"

Experts agree that if parents allow smartphones, there should be parameters, which include banning smartphones from bedrooms overnight and setting time limits and parental controls.

For parents who choose not to allow their kids to have smartphones, experts suggest talking openly to your kids about your concerns, or providing a stripped down phone for calls and texts only.

In 2021, Annalise got a basic phone, and at 15, sees the benefits of not having a smartphone.

"It’s been a positive experience not growing up with one," she said. "I spent more time doing more valuable things and less time on my phone. I’ve better self esteem and better social skills. And I can definitely communicate and just talk to people more."